A echo of Saeko

– My name is Saeko, I am five years and ten months old, I am a girl and I have lived in this outpost all my life.

– – –

“Get downstairs! Get downstairs now Saeko!”

“Mommy I want you to go wi-!”

“Go now!!”

– – –

– I have a mom and a dad who work with writing and meetings, and two big sisters. One is in military school and one is in primary school.

– – –

A pitched howl. Boom. The ground shook and Saeko screamed.

Chu-chu-chug. Someone else screamed too. Chu-chu-chug. Dad screamed. Chu-chu-chug. Dad stopped screaming.

– – –

– My favorite food is prota-nugs with red sauce and fried oat. My favorite book is A Map of a Moon With a Blue Balloon. I like it because the pictures are pretty and I get a little scared almost at the end but then I get happy again.

– – –

Shouts. Voices of strangers, some voices she recognized. But not mom’s voice. Not dad’s voice. Saeko fought back her own voice, but it choked her and escaped her aching throat as a thin hiss.

– – –

– One time, my dad said: “If you call ‘Saeko’ in the mountains, you’ll get a eko back.”

– Isn’t it an echo?”.

– Nope. Because my name isn’t San-eko, is it?”

– Oh you…!

– – –

The door was supposed to be shut. It was supposed to be shut to prevent gas and fire to get into the safety room. The door wasn’t shut. Saeko could hear everything.

– – –

– I don’t know really what mom and dad work with, but when they have meetings in the kitchen, I have to be in the bedroom and play games or watch video. I don’t really understand what they are talking about, only that it is about the Union and the Federation and the war. And we were Federation, but now we are Union, I think. Mom and dad was fighting in the war when we were Federation, but they weren’t soldiers.

– – –

Shouts from outside. Footsteps inside. Rough soles moved across the kitchen floor. You weren’t allowed to wear shoes indoors.

And you weren’t allowed to fight wars if you weren’t a soldier. Then they came for you.

Saeko wasn’t sure who “they” were though, Federation or Union. But they were here now.

A voice distorted by protection mask and speaker. “Clear.”

Another voice, lighter, more hoarse. “Door.”

The first repeated. “Door.”

Creaking hinges. Footsteps coming down the stairs. Her heart beat so hard her whole body quivered with each heartbeat. Invisible hands crushed her throat, her stomach.

Footsteps stopped.

“Union Armed Forces, Tyrian Division. Come out, hands on your head.”

She couldn’t see them, so they couldn’t see her, they couldn’t, could they?

A vague buzz, like a radio on low volume.

First voice. “Repeat?”

Second voice. “A child.”

“The fuck…?”

Go away, go away, go away…!

Footsteps again. Saeko pressed her face against her pulled up knees.

Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, don’t kill me…

“Hey kitten. Wan’ come out?”

I want my mom and dad.

– – –

– I don’t go to school yet, but when I start school I will have to go to UC15, because we don’t have a school at our outpost. Satsuki is on UC15, and Sadako is at UC01 because the military school is on UC01. Dad said she couldn’t go to military school because she was Federation but she said “watch me” and went there anyway.

– – –

First voice. She could see his boots. Grey. Worn. One clasp was broken. They looked heavy.

“C’mon, kitten. You not safe here. I’m not goin’ hurt you, okay?”

More low buzzing talk.

“Got it.”

The soldier squatted down beside her. She glanced at his knees, not letting go of her own. Grey fabric. Protection plates. A hole above the knee that was dark with dried blood and had been sewn together.

“Hey kitten. You hear me?”

A hand reached out to her. The glove was grey too, darker reinforcements, almost worn out on palm and knuckles.

Saeko screamed.

– – –

– I like to plant seeds but not so much the ones that grow slow, but sunflowers and peas grow fast so I like to plant those.

– – –

She cried and screamed and wriggled and squirmed as the soldier lifted her up and carried her upstairs and out on the square outside the house.

Around her was smoke from burning buildings. Three people lying flat on the ground with blood on their clothes, two soldiers dragging another two limp bodies there. Dad’s shirt was on one of them.

The sound of hovering spacecrafts and distorted voices made her head spin, that was dad’s shirt, on a dead person, the sound was so loud, the clicking of weapons and scraping of boots against concrete, and…
…someone shouting her name.

– – –

– When I was little I planted a toy brick because I thought it would grow more bricks on it like a potato. I was a little stupid when I was little!

– – –

She tilted her head to see around the soldier’s shoulder, back at the voice, and shouted back:

“Mommy!”

“Saeko, sweet child, I’m here, mommy’s here!”

“Mommy!”

She tried to get free from the soldier’s grip, furiously, but he was too strong.

“Easy, kitten”, he mumbled.

“Let her go, let her come to me, I’m her mother! That’s my child!” Mom was crying.

“Stay down”, said another soldier who was pointing a weapon at mom.

“Take the kid to the shuttle”, said someone beside them.

“Got it.”

And the soldier carried her away.

Saeko screamed, trying to reach out to her mom while each step took her further away from her.

“I’ll come and get you later, sweet child, I promise, mommy will come and get you Saeko!”

The ruins of her home blurred through the tears, her mom only a smudge far away, the crest on the soldier’s shoulder looked like an angel with its light yellow wings but it was an angel whose soldiers had killed her dad and was taking her mom.

– – –

Saeko’s screams died from one moment to another; the echo of it lingered in Haylen’s ears for months.

– – –

– I think that was actually quite clever, Saeko! You formed a theory and you tested it! You’re a smart girl. I heard you when said that you don’t really understand what your parents work with, but do you mind trying again? I’m quite curious now.

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It’s a cap

“No no no, I don’t have to blow that thing yet, I really, I mean reeeally don’t. Have to. Not have t- don’t have to.”

“You’ve had six drinks in an hour, it’s alcometer time.”

“I’m barely tipsy!”

“Even if you weren’t slurring, which you are, or wobbling, which you are as well, you’d still have to blow.”

“Come on, I just had my, uhm, my amps caliber… brated, have you ever had a sonar? Have you ever had it calib-…rated? Do you know. How a sonar. In your ear. Affects your…-”

“I can imagine that is uncomfortable yes, now please blow the alcometer for me, I have other customers waiting.”

“Oh come on, no need to be rude, I just – okay listen. Hi. I’m Felicia. How’re you doing. I would like a Best Oh Two- hey wh…- mmh!”

“Sorry about this, now please blow.”

“…huck ew…”

“Thank you. I’m sorry, but I have to cap you. Would you like a noncoholic Best Oh Two instead?”

“How about I show you who’s the best of two of… best of two of us… best of us two, huh? …There’s a guard right behind me now, isn’t it?”

“Yes, there’s a guard right behind you. Now, would you like a noncoholic Best Oh Two, would you like to return to your friends, or would you like to be escorted out?”

“…Fine, give me that fucking Worst Oh Two then.”

 

– – –

 

“Good morning, Felicia!”

“Ngh-hn…”

“You… look terrible. What’s wrong?”

“Don’t know, stomach flu maybe…”

“Ew. Wash your hands, use your own towel, please.”

“It’s not contagious, don’t you worry. Is there any rehydro tabs?”

“Yes, I think there is some in the medicine locker. But honestly, if it is stomach flu then it is highly contagious, and I do not want a stomach flu spreading in this home, so you do as I say, heir.”

“So maybe it’s food poisoning then, jeez, relax…”

“What did you eat last night, if I may ask? And where?”

“Ugh, this tap water’s piss warm, for god’s sake…”

“They’ve shut down the coolers until they are done repairing the wind farms. Look, if it was at a pub you have to report it. Food poisoning can kill people, you know.”

“It was probably something from here, can you just… leave it now?”

“Oh no, there’s no poisonous food in this kitchen, in that case you must have brought it in from somewhere.”

“Alright, alright, your kitchen’s clinically clean, I’m going to bed again.”

“…Are you hungover, Felicia?”

“Why would I be hungover, come on…”

“So that’s where that weird smell comes from, you are hungover!”

“So what if I am, I can’t be the first person in history to be hungover, can I?”

“How did you manage to get drunk enough to get a hangover? I thought they couldn’t serve you after you reached a certain BAC?”

“Mom, did you spend the last ten years on an asteroid? If you want booze, you get booze.”

“But why, Felicia? How can it be worth it if you wake up in that shape?”

“Good talk mom, I’m going to bed, thanks for the rehydration…”

“You don’t even remember what you did last, night, do you? Felicia?”

“Good night.”

“Good day. It’s almost noon. And you’re not a teenager any longer, why…- Oh dear god, give me strength…”

 

– – –

 

“You’re all familiar with the Federation Mechanical Trooper, if not from personal experience then at least through reports and briefings. Since the Gamma wars, we haven’t seen any replacing models. However there has been updates on the existing ones. Let’s start with…- I say, private, that sure looks like an interesting breakfast.”

“Uh… sorry major, I’m not following?”

“Your yawn was so wide I could see straight down into your stomach.”

“…oh. Sorry, major, I’ll, uh, cover my mouth next time.”

“You could also try this wonderful thing called ‘a good night’s sleep’.”

“I’ll try that too, major, thanks for the tip.”

“I can highly recommend it.”

“Copy that, major.”

“It makes marvels with your appearance as well. No red and puffy eyes, no scratchy voice, no stiff necks, no headaches.”

“I think I get the picture, major.”

“Your skin will be supple, your digestion will be top notch, your hair and nails will grow strong and shiny, your reactions will be quicker, your concentration will improve… I could go on all day about the benefits of a good night’s sleep.”

“I’m sure you could, major.”

“Am I boring you, private? Stepping on a sore toe or another?”

“Not at all, major.”

“Excellent. Sadly, I’ll have to carry on with the lecture about this MT, or I’d shared with you a few of my favorite methods to get that good night’s sleep. However, if you got time after the lecture, I’ll gladly give you my best tips on meditation, evening routines and healthy night snacks.”

“I… really appreciate it major, but my schedule’s full today.”

“Pity. Well then. One of the upgrades to the MT is a new balance system. The older versions were steady enough, but in certain circumstances they were easy to topple over. With this upgrade…”

 

– – –

 

“Okay, so, uhm… When I go out at nights, I use to have, like, beer or drinks – regular drinks, you know with booze and soda and other stuff that you mix, and… Well I usually get capped, and, that’s kind of boring, you know? Because I can easily drink more than that, way more, but, well, I can’t because of the cap rules, and… But I use to get myself more booze anyway, I ask a friend to order some, or I go to another bar and hope that I burned away enough to not be capped anymore, because you know, they can only check if you’re capped or not, not just how high your BAC is, so if I’m clear, I can buy two or three drinks at the same time, so… Anyway, I, uhm, I know this isn’t – I mean – crap…”

“It appears you have: an alcohol-related problem. To voicechat with a counselor, chose option 1. To schedule an appointment with a counselor, chose option 2. If you experience physical ailment due to the problem and would like to voicechat with a physician, chose option 3. If you want to describe your problem again to receive a new judgement, chose option 4.”

“…”

“You haven’t made a choice yet. To voicechat with a counselor, chose option 1. To schedule an appointment with a-”

“You know what, forget it, I’ll work it out.”

“Would you like to end this call?”

“Yes. I want it to end.”

“You will receive a follow-up message on this call in 24 hours. If you change your mind before then, please contact us again. Thank you for your call. Have a nice day.”

“… Wait, I changed my mind, I want to…- Damn it. DamnitdamnitdamnitdamnitDAMNIT!”

Repairs

«you home?»

Haylen heard the notification but didn’t react until it beeped the third or fourth time. It felt as if his sinuses were filled with sponges. As this second day of the surge was coming to an end, he felt marginally better, but holy hell, was he out of it or what…

He rolled over on his side in the bed to flip the text screen open. It was his sister. She lived on Nineteen too, and used to keep some track of her younger brothers

‹y›

Neither of them were fond of voice chat, and neither of them used more letters than possible when text chatting. It didn’t take long before she replied.

«broken 5er on 04A east, got time?»

‹in 3-4 days, sick now›

«fuck»

Safe to assume it wasn’t a curse out of sympathy, but frustration over not getting help right now, the moment she asked for it. Not that she was depending on his help. She was a Union employee, she had a set pay, no urgent deadlines on her current working place, but she hated leaving things be for long. Just like himself. When it came to practical things at least.

«say when then»

‹k›

He didn’t bother asking why she couldn’t just call in help from her unit. She usually didn’t ask him if she didn’t need his help specifically, and she would let him know in the most hostile way. That she was annoyed he couldn’t drop everything and come to her rescue immediately wasn’t his problem, and he wasn’t going to let her make it his.

Haylen muted notifications completely and sank back on the pillow.

 

– – –

 

Four days later he was finally back on his feet, and left his small rental apartment to catch the train to the M04A outpost, only stopping to buy a bottle of Rock Viper Brew first. It was a strong, rather rough and bitter alcoholic beverage that was infamous for the actual viper venom that was used to chemically affect the rock pine cone based distillate and give it that certain taste that nineteeners loved, and the rest of the system hated.

The M04A was the junction of the mining district named M04, located an hour’s train trip away from Nineteen Main. Among miners, the outpost went by the name Euphoria, because of its resemblance with how 04A was pronounced, and the fact that there was nothing about that outpost to be euphoric about whatsoever.

Most of Nineteen Main was built inside the mountain. It was a city made to last, and to provide highest possible safety and comfort to the lowest cost. It had the mountain itself as a protective shield against grinding sand and scorching sun, and with clever solutions to ventilation and leading in the necessary sunlight, it had become a place where people could live and not only survive.

The outposts, however, needed to be easily removed when the mining ceased. And since the mines weren’t allowed to exceed a certain size, a district rarely lasted longer than a decade or two. Euphoria consisted completely of modules in the open, surrounded by a protection dome; basically the same kind of force field that Haylen’s amps produced, only in a much larger scale.

The train stopped, and Haylen blinked his eyes open, took a deep breath and stretched his back out. He had fallen asleep, as always. He was lucky Euphoria was at the end station, right… He stepped through the gates, crossed the platform and went to the exit.

The warm air and bright light outside stood in stark contrast to the more conditioned environment in the train cars and station building. Even with the dome, Euphoria’s grey buildings were sunbleached, and the trees and plants were wilting. In the distance, the enormous terraformer construct stretched its angular spire to the deep blue sky, the silhouette quivering in the hot air.

Luka was waiting outside for him. As most other workers who had their homes near the mining sites themselves, she had a two-seat loading vehicle at her disposal. It was called a sandworm, even if it didn’t look much like a worm at all. It was a sturdy, open terrain vehicle on six wheels that required a license and a minimum age of 15 to drive. Luka had been driving sandworms since she was able to steer it, and Haylen still didn’t know if she ever got a proper license.

She was two years older than himself, and had a whole different career. She had been repairing and scrapping mining equipment with their uncle since she was old enough to follow him around. If it was the lonely work that had hardened her, or if the work suited her because she was hardened from start, was hard to tell. Either way, where most people found Haylen harsh and insensible, they would soon reevaluate once they met Luka.

She grunted some kind of greeting and hauled up a helmet and a protection vest for him, and eventually he sat down behind her on the sandworm, and they were off. The bumpy road didn’t make the sandworm any more comfortable, but at least it woke him up completely.

Luka’s small module house, where their uncle, Val, had lived too until last year, was the only one left up here. The rest of them had been moved to M11, the currently largest mining district. The protection dome was gone too. The foundations for the generators were still there, surrounding the former worker camp as silent concrete guardians. Inside the large circle of non-existent generators, the outlines of the house modules and traces of the gardens that had grown around them could still be seen as sunbaked grids on the ground.

Of Val’s neatly planned and well kept garden with vegetables, fruits and flowers in ingenious constellations, there was nothing but a couple of scraggy berry bushes with long thorns left. Luka wasn’t one to fuss with plants in the first place; with the dome gone, even Val would have struggled to keep anything alive out here.

People used to say that there was only one thing Val cared for more in this world than engines, and that was his garden. The kids of his brother had only been on third place. Haylen, Luka and Kylan used to claim it was the opposite; engines first, garden second.

Luka didn’t stop at the housing area though, but went straight to the garage that was located east of it, outside the dome. She parked outside and they went into the sweep.

The engines used on Nineteen were made to endure sand, gravel, dust and mud of any grain size in every combination, but to keep them in condition, the garages needed to be kept as clean as possible. Like most open air buildings and houses, the garage had a “sweep”, a room where you brushed or vacuumed, usually both, off all the dust and sand from your clothes and shoes before continuing inside.

The garage looked as it usually did, a large hall, workbenches and tool shelves on the sides, several hoists, two pits, tools and devices and crates everywhere. There were a few taken apart vehicles in here, some cylinder blocks in various states butchering, and one of the huge drill engines that were used to make the first surface break when starting a new mine. To the inexperienced eye, it was mild chaos, but Haylen could tell that Luka still didn’t leave anything out that she wasn’t using, and there was no litter to be found.

Luka gathered the necessary tools for vehicle repairs, putting them into a bag, then motioned Haylen to follow into the changing room. Luka headed straight for a large locker at the wall, pointing at a box on a bench.

“Mealbars if you be hungry.”

He wasn’t really, but took one anyway. It usually took him a few days after a kryvat surge to start eating properly again, so it was good to be reminded. There was also the old soldier habits kicking in. Eat when you can, accept what you’re offered.

“You be de same size still?” She opened the locker and checked the boxes stored within.

“Yeah.” Haylen wasn’t sure what that “still” was in comparison with, but there had been no remarkable changes regarding his bodyshape the last five years anyway.

“You be lucky Val’s gear still be here den, you high heel crossbreeds…” She continued muttering something while she dug out the protective gear for him.

As most areas on Nineteen, M04 East and the way there, was a dangerous place for a human. Except for the scale bears that mostly resided down on the plains but used to hunt near the rocky foot of the mountain, there were smaller but even more vicious lizards higher up, and when you got up on the real altitudes you’d find – or rather be found by – scale eagles, predator birds big enough to lift off with prey up to fifty kilograms. As the scale bears, they were covered in what was closest described as scales, even if they were longer and more fringed on the wings of the eagles.

The most dangerous creatures though were the scavengers. Human scavengers.

That was why even the mechanics at M04 used armor and helmets when they were out scrapping or repairing. It wasn’t as sophisticated and complete as the sets the Task Force soldiers used on missions, but it saved a few lives every year.

Jacket and trousers had composite chainmail under the outer layer of wind- and water resistant fabric, that prevented saw blades as well as beaks, claws or fangs to tear your flesh apart. The vest with its high collar was bulletproof and kept your vital organs and throat safe. Armguards so you were able to fend off scale bears without risking your arms to be bit off. Bulletproof helmets, light and ventilated enough to let you deal with the sun and the heat, but firm enough to save you from a concussion if you fell on the ground, or if a piece of rock or a spanner fell on you.

After they geared up, Luka unlocked a safe and took out her weapon, plus one for Haylen. Stun weapons was part of the standard equipment as well – nothing lethal, since they weren’t allowed to kill the wild life without written permission. Not the human criminals either, for that matter.

There was one more reason, one that wasn’t mentioned as much, and that was the risk of shootings. The Union rather lost one or two citizens a year to animal attacks or scavenger assaults, than double digits to derailed workers going on killing sprees in one of the worker camps or at the outposts.

The Fiver was a transportation vehicle model the size of a medium troop transporter, made for towing mobile devices and engines like drills, hoists and generators, or cargo trailers or even other vehicles. All you needed was the right type of connection on the thing you wanted to tow away. At least that was the recommendation; neither Val nor Luka were strangers to extra chains, wires and duct tape, if the situation so demanded.

This one had stopped working on its way back to the mine during the final evacuation. There were a couple of others in use at the time, so Luka had been able to move all the mining engines back anyway. But this particular specimen still had several years of duty ahead of it, and needed to be fixed and taken back to the outpost within reasonable time.

Haylen had been paying attention to their surroundings on their way up with the sandworm, and now as he stepped off, he unholstered his weapon and scanned the location for possible threats. It was a rather exposed location. He couldn’t imagine that even Luka, who in general hated other people’s company, would want to work alone out here unless she had to.

Luka had a short look around too, her weapon still holstered though, then she looked him over and snorted.

“Dey kicked you back into shape quickly, eh.”

He looked at her as she hauled the toolbox up, holstering his weapon.

“Was I ever out of it?”

He followed her to the Fiver, regretting the snap back. Maybe she had meant it as a compliment. Not likely, sure, but maybe he shouldn’t assume she was being mean all the time.

“Last time I saw you, you be a chainwreck.”

Or maybe he should.

Not that she was wrong. Then again, it had been during one of the worst times he had ever had in Praesidia, for several reasons.

“Dat was ages ago”, he pointed out with a glance up at an eagle circling in the distance.

“Oh right”, she said with pretended surprise, “it was. Too long ago, eh.” Always with the accusations.

“Not long enough, right…”

“Hope you still love machines more dan your sis”, she said as she eyed the Fiver over, unclear if she meant his love for her, or her love for machines.

She opened the door to the cabin and climbed up.

“I goin’ open de hood for you. De wires be intact, fuel lines, chains an’ laces, still it won’ ignite, an’ I can’ hear what be wrong from here.”

Haylen nodded and waited for the hood to open with a clank and a low hum, then climbed up on the ledge around the engine compartment, checking that the hood had locked properly.

Like Luka, he had spent a great deal of his childhood helping their uncle in the garages of many a mining district, putting together dismantled machines, repairing broken ones, cleaning and greasing up working ones, learning the craft by doing. Kylan was the digital crafter and could spend hours searching for bugs, rewrite code and create his own programs for the computer parts of the machines.

Haylen had learned some of that too. In either area, his siblings outmatched him, but he still knew enough to easily manage this job if he had wanted it.

During his basic military education, he had learned how to repair and maintain a lot of engines used by the Armed Forces and later the Tyrian Tanks. Essentially, they were all the same, the Fiver engine no exception. He located the cylinders; the Fiver ran on liquid fuel, not electric batteries or power cells.

In the main city, most vehicles for personal use or transports ran on batteries. The heavier machinery, as well as the protection domes, was powered by the same kind of power cells as spaceships. Electricity for the batteries was produced locally, but the power cells were made in a whole other system, and thus the only types that were shipped here were the larger ones.

Household batteries lasted long, but the mining industry couldn’t rely on batteries for their engines. The electric power supply for charging them was unreliable out here in the mining districts. These areas of Nineteen were windy alright, but during the common storms the windmills had to be shut down or they would break.

Instead, fuel made of biowaste, algae and plant oil, among other things, was used. This fuel was usually of high quality, but some batches were less kind on the engines. Val had taught them how to tell if the fuel was good or bad by trying some on your tongue.

The common conception of nineteeners eating engine greaseon occasion wasn’t only sprung from this habit among workers though; the grease for industrial use that was extracted and refined from the same raw material as the fuel wasn’t exactly tasty, but organic, and possible to survive on it if you absolutely had to.

To be honest, it was actually not that bad if you added some salt and chives.

“Ready?” Luka called from the cabin, and he waved clearance at her.

The starter engine whirred as it should, but as Luka had said, it didn’t ignite properly. There was a faint, indistinct sound somewhere, and Haylen turned his head to try and locate it. The engine shut off.

He leaned back, giving Luka another go-wave, did a quick scan of their surroundings, before focusing on the weird sound again.

There. An unsteady ticking that he was familiar with, even if he hadn’t encountered it that many times before. He signed at Luka to stop. She got out and stepped up beside him.

“Pretty sure it be de feeder”, he said, pointing at it even if he didn’t have to.

“De feeders be tight enough, told you I checked dose”, she said dismissively, but with a frown of insecurity.

“De base joints too?” He looked at her.

She scowled. “Inside de block? No, why you t’ink I brought YOU here, eh? Can’t open dat slab of junk on my own, can I?”

“So now you goin’ mad wit’ me for helpin’. Awesome…” He checked the cliffs to his left again, but whatever it was he might have seen a moment earlier, it was gone now.

“Not for you helpin’, but for givin’ me dat brattitude.”

Haylen lifted his chin up and looked at her. Out of nowhere, she started to snicker.

“What?” he asked, puzzled and not amused by it.

You mad now, li’l bro?”

He looked back at the engine. “Can’ let you have all de fun, eh.”

“A’ight, let’s take dis beauty apart den.”

 

– – –

 

It took them four hours, five fingercuts and plethora of curses to fix the base joints and have the feeder run smoothly again. It was a critical part, so naturally it was well embedded in several casings. It should probably have been done in a cleaner environment, but that obviously wasn’t an option. The whole thing should get a full-service before being relocated to M11 anyway.

When the engine finally started, Luka let out a triumphant “Hah!” that Haylen could hear even here at the engine compartment. He stepped down from the ledge, and Luka leaned out from the cabin as the hood closed, holding out the key for the sandworm at him.

“I ent got a license, you know'”, he said, taking it nevertheless.

“An’ who goin’ stop you?” she asked, gesturing at the wasteland around them. “Dey trust you wit’ weapons an’ implants made for killin’ people, pretty sure dey can trust you wit’ a fuckin’ sandworm, eh.”

There was no point in trying to catch the last train back to the city, so he accepted Luka’s offer to stay overnight. After dinner they sat down outside at the fireplace she had made of an old concrete tray from the mine. When the force field dome was up, noone was allowed to light fires inside it, because of safety regulations. Now, there was probably some restrictions regarding wildfire, but Haylen didn’t even comment this time.

It was nice to just sit there in the cool of dusk, silently, watching the fire, the two moons of Nineteen, and the stars on the sky. None of them felt obliged to talk; even if there probably were things they should talk about, this wasn’t the time.

It was, however, time for rock viper brew. When Haylen handed the bottle over to Luka with a “Congrats to anot’er year”, she first looked at him with narrowed eyes.

“You remember my birt’day? But not dat I don’ celebrate’em?” she said as she took the bottle.

“Yeah, I know you don’. An’ still you whine like a roller chain if we forget, eh.”

He dodged her attempt to smack him in the head with her palm with a smirk, then held the cups so she could fill them with the green-tinted booze.

Luka raised her cup, and couldn’t stop a genuinely warm smile spread on her lips. “Wit’ us or wit’out us…”

“…difference be Nineteen”. Haylen raised his cup too and they drank to Luka’s success in surviving another year.

Light-footed

The rehab center on the Armed Forces main base in Sol’s Ward was a place most soldiers on Ignis were familiar with. Whether it was bullet wounds, burns, broken bones or NBC-injuries this was the place you were sent to recover and rebuild after hospital care.

Felicia didn’t like being fussed with during missions or while she was onboard the ship, but down here she didn’t mind being pampered and cheered at at all. It was no recreational resort, definitely not. Fixed schedules, training sessions, serious food that the staff made sure you ate whether you wanted or not, but there was also no stress, no life or death-situations making your heart go tilt as you were doing calf lifts.

Last time Felicia had to spend time here, she had been shot in her thigh and above her hip. A few centimeters to the left on the thigh, and she probably would have bled out in minutes. A few centimeters to the right, and her femur would have shattered.

At the time, she had insisted on staying onboard the Ignis since it was only muscle damage and she imagined that the training hall on the ship wasn’t a worse place to do squats on than the ones on the rehab center. After, she had been grateful that doctor Eira hadn’t given in to her pleas. The physiotherapists here at the rehab center knew their shit.

As many places at Sol’s Ward, the main base was still scarred by the Gamma wars. A whole wing of the hospital was still in ruins, even if most of the debris had been cleaned up by now. The broken remains of the walls was a bitter reminder of the cruelty of war in general, but also the Federation’s disgusting habit of making ”mistakes” about their targets in particular. Felicia could see the hypocrisy in rules of war as well as anyone, but as far as she was concerned, you didn’t need a higher degree in philosophy to understand that hospitals were a no-go when it came to bombing.

As they entered the building, Tianyi made a sound of disgust. Granted, there were soldiers who weren’t as fond of this place.

“This place smells like decay and despair”, she said, wrinkling her nose.

“You have no idea what those words even mean, do you?” Keith snorted.

They found Santo in the visitor’s area, where he was talking to another soldier who lost both her arms. He waved at them when he spotted them, said goodbye to the other soldier, and steered his wheelchair towards his team mates.

”Finally living up to your light-footed reputation, huh”, Morgan said as he gave Santo a hug.

”Oh screw you, lab rat”, Santo smiled and punched him on the shoulder.

He seemed to be in a better mood than when Felicia had that short videochat a while ago, but she could tell he wasn’t great on the whole. She looked at his legs; they all did, some making more attempts to hide it than others.

”I’m sorry for staring”, Felicia said, because she couldn’t pretend she wasn’t, ”it’s just that my brain keeps trying to repair this picture, and… wow, I’m really smooth here, ain’t I”, she groaned.

”It’s okay, I find myself staring at them too”, Santo said, and smiled again. She knew that smile; it was the one you used to not fall apart in front of your team.

”How are you feeling?” Morgan asked.

Santo took a deep breath, raising his eyebrows in exaggerated conviction.

”Well, I’m not crying over it more than once a day, so I call progress there.” He nodded. ”But I still catch myself attempting to put my feet down on the floor every time I’m getting out of bed. I need to work on that, I guess.”

”When are you getting robofeet?” Keith asked.

”Not in a while, the tissues need to heal entirely first, or it might get infected or grow too much scar tissues, and a whole list of other things that they presented to me when I woke up after first surgery and told them I was so ready for prosthetics.”

”Do you still feel your left big toe ache when it rains?” Keith peered at him.

”Oh come on”, Santo groaned, tilting his head back, ”I made a joke once and you still think it’s true…”

”But do you have phantom pains?” Keith insisted.

”Sometimes, yes.”

”…when it rains?”

Keith jumped aside as Morgan attempted to put his arm around his head to drag him away from Santo. Santo, Felicia and Tianyi laughed, but then a center employee frowned at them and asked them to keep it down a notch.

Tianyi made a face about it so only her teammates could see, then she looked at Santo.

”The commander said you’ll most likely not come back to the Ignis. You’ll prove her wrong, right?”

The rest of them went quiet. Santo smiled again, and this time there was more bitterness in it.

”I won’t come back to the Ignis. Not to my old position at least. I might have made it with one fake foot, but not with two.”

”You could retrain, become a sniper. They don’t need to be sprinters.”

Tianyi seemed to have full faith in her own words. It irritated Felicia, that she was acting as if Santo had broken a toenail or something. And made her envious of the neverending optimism that Tianyi possessed.

”Snipers still need to meet the same physical requirements as the others.”

”There’s a lot of requirements that aren’t met in our team though”, Tianyi shrugged.

Keith raised an eyebrow and looked at her.

”You sound like Cory now, Tia.”

Tianyi turned to him with eyes like laser pointers.

”You’re on thin ice now, buddy.”

”We’ll see, I guess”, Santo said. ”I need to actually get the prosthetics first anyway.”

Tianyi didn’t push the matter any further, which Felicia was grateful of.

They had some afternoon snacks with Santo, telling him about the Alpha Dawn’s latest shenanigans, before Felicia, Keith and Tianyi had to leave to catch their trains. Morgan had time to stay yet another while.

Felicia looked over her shoulder as the three headed to the exit, and saw Morgan shuffling his chair closer to Santo, putting an arm around his friend. Grimly she thought to herself that he at least would have the daily crying over and done with before night time.

Ill-fated shore leave

<Appear at med bay 30 min before shift change.>

The message was signed doctor Eira, and was flashing at his wristband when the wake up call sounded. Haylen sent his affirmative before he even began to wonder on why she wanted to see him. It wasn’t exactly uncommon for him to be called to the med bay, right.

They should have docked at the shuttle station over UC01 during the night, and before breakfast, team 2 would sign on and officially go on duty while team 1 would resign from combat duty and prepare for shore leave. The hours between breakfast and lunch had cleaning up and storage shifting on the schedule.

As a Tyrian Tank, Haylen had gotten used to bring all equipment wherever he went, since they could never be sure they’d be picked up where they were dropped, or vice versa. The Union Task Forces, however, went on shorter missions and the ship was their permanent base. Therefore, all the armor sets, spacesuits, breathing equipment and weapons were stored onboard. It meant that a lot of the ship space was occupied, but it was either that or have each soldier carry it all back and forth every time they left or boarded the ship.

To share equipment would have solved the storage issue partly, but that had been ruled out. Not that it wasn’t adjustable; most equipment was possible to program, calibrate or physically match each individual. Strict hygiene routines made it possible to share equipment with others as well. However, the storage requirements was justified by the decreased risk of soldiers losing items on the go, involuntarily or not.

As Haylen got out of bed and began to get dressed, the answer to why doctor Eira had called him in occurred to him. Putting your pants on shouldn’t leave you completely out of breath, and swallowing shouldn’t feel as if you had a cactus in your throat, right. Clearly, it was a kryvat surge on the rise.

The Praesidia company physician had prescripted one type of immune system affecting medicine that he said had been used successfully for years to keep relapses at bay on a lot of kryvat struck people. It had worked well for Haylen too, so far. It still meant a week or so out of action every time he had a surge, but it was bearable. Not anywhere near the hell it had been the first time after he caught it.

Only doctor Eira had told him to stop taking that medicine a couple of weeks ago, since she wanted to study the kryvat process properly in order to find a better treatment. He hadn’t argued, especially not after she pointed out the potential risk of serious infections that he, due to this particular medication, might not even notice until they killed him.

The prickling sensation in his nose, eyes, and throat quickly grew more intense as he and the rest of the team went to the canteen for breakfast. As they took care of the usual daily chores of tidying up sleeping quarters, toilets and washrooms, he could tell this surge would be extra all.

– – –

Haylen found doctor Eira at the medbay on scheduled time, lecturing Tianyi over her arm. Tianyi rolled her eyes at Haylen as she put her jacket on, which of course the doctor saw.

“You’ll thank me when you’re ninety and still can do push ups, private”, the doctor said sharply, then waved Haylen inside.

“Who says I even want to live that long, doc?” Tianyi grinned, closed the zipper and left the infirmary.

Doctor Eira sighed and went to wash her hands. “Alright, corporal, are you completely sure it’s a kryvat relapse?” She turned to him as she dried her hands with a cloth, nodding for him to sit down at the examination table.

“Yeah, pretty sure”, he said with a sniffle, reaching for one of the tissues he for once had remembered to put in his side pocket before going here.

“That’s great.” She smiled and picked up a scope. “Not that you’re ill of course, but that I got the chance to see at least the start of it first hand. Pity you can’t stay on board, or I’d have a great opportunity to study it. Now, let’s take a look at you. Take off your jacket please.”

He did as he was told. Without the jacket, he soon began to shiver. It wasn’t even noon, and he already had chills.

The doctor did an ordinary physical exam and took some samples, before presenting an inhalation mask for him.

“Now”, she began to explain, “I will prep you with nanobots via this inhalation powder and eye drops. These nanobots will attach to the membranes and send information to a receiver that I will place in your multiport. You already have implants that analyzes everything that goes on in your body and then some, but this system is dedicated to this specific task. First take a breath through your mouth only, hold your breath for five seconds, then breathe out properly and repeat but through your nose only.”

The powder had a weird taste and smell, he noticed, despite not being able to neither taste nor smell much at all at this stage. Doctor Eira applied the eye drops as well and the world got a little hazier for a while.

“And now for the receiver”, the doctor continued. She pressed an injector tool at the multiport that was integrated on his forearm, close to the crook of the arm. It was a permanent implant that most soldiers had to make medical treatment easier and safer.

“There we go.” The doctor gave his arm a quick pat and took the tool away.

Haylen started to cough and hoped that those nanobots were holding on properly. Meanwhile doctor Eira went to a cupboard and fetched a medicine package that she placed beside him on the examination table.

“Cold remedies. Use them as you please, as long as you make notes on what, when, and how much.”

“Got it.” He sniffled and put his jacket on again.

“I also want you to take notes on your symptoms. Not body temperature or pulse or anything else that your implants already keep track of, but what symptoms you experience when and how intense they are.”

She looked at him more sternly. “And when I say notes, corporal, I mean real notes. Not the ‘I feel fine’ or ‘I feel less fine’ kind of observations that you jarheads tend to come up with. I want details. Is that clear?”

“Yes doctor.” He felt less fine now.

She peered at him. “You really have to blow your nose again, don’t you?”

He lifted his chin a little. “Yeah. I really do.”

“Off with you then. And if you have to take a break from all that deck swabbing, you have my permission.”

– – –

Team 2 should have boarded half an hour or so before breakfast, but it wasn’t until the time of the shift change that they finally arrived. As the officers hadn’t appeared yet, the teams waited in the training hall where they were to gather for the shift change.

Haylen took the opportunity to sit down at the wall, leaning his head back at it; his nose was getting too stuffy to breathe through, but it was still as runny as before, so tilting his head back reduced the persisting sniffling somewhat.

“What took you so long, Simone’s oatmeal isn’t good enough for you anymore?” Keith asked Hiroshi as the scout of team 2 irritatedly tossed his backpack at the wall.

“Ask the fuckers in security control. Oh wait, they unfortunately can’t give any information on the current situation”, he added with obvious sarcasm.

“Me and Jiwe met Santo at the base hospital the other day”, Jamal, sniper of team 2, said to Roz as he closed buttons and zippers on his uniform to look proper for the line up, “and Jiwe betted five coins on him being delirious. Please say I win this bet.”

“Congratulations, you just earned five coins”, Roz replied, but she didn’t seem to find the subject as amusing as Jamal and Jiwe, the team 2 medic.

The buzz in the hall didn’t exactly help with Haylen’s growing headache, and his neck was soon protesting against the tilted back position. He leaned his forehead in his hand instead, and so the sniffling was on again.

“Hey, are you ill?” Olena looked at Haylen with concern after giving Rashida a quick hug.

“Wait, what, who’s ill?” Sheng sounded alarmed as his attention snapped to Olena and then Haylen.

Haylen just shook his head dismissively. “Kryvat surge”, he said and stood up to get more tissues from the sink at the wall, sneezing again as he did.

“Because I really don’t want to get sick this tour too”, Sheng continued and moved a few steps away.

“Calm your cogs, Sheng”, Keith said, “it’s not contagious, even to those who deserve it.”

“Maybe you should go lie down”, Olena suggested, ignoring Sheng.

Cory, who was standing nearby as well, said teasingly: “Oh you’d love to help him lie down, wouldn’t you?”

“I definitely would, and you know it”, she replied, unembarrassed, and looked at Haylen again. “But seriously, you look terrible.”

“I’ll manage,” Haylen mumbled and blew his nose.

“Maybe he’s allergic to your approaches”, Cory continued his mocking.

“Just because you can’t handle them it doesn’t mean that other people can’t, my babe.”

They were all interrupted by captain Avril’s sharp “Attention!” and they lined up in their respective teams. The captain gave Haylen one single look, then told him that he could sit down whenever he needed.

The commander was there as well, standing before them with her usual look of confidence and satisfaction. After a brief report on the last tours ups and downs, and the official hand-over between the teams had been made, she got the final word before the teams continued their various duties.

“Team 1, I regret to inform you that your teammate, private Santo, isn’t likely to come back to this ship as a combat soldier again.”

There were scattered disappointed sighs and frustrated curses heard among the soldiers. Losing a team member at some point, in some way or another, was unavoidable in their trade. That didn’t mean there weren’t any reactions to it.

Commander Nihad looked at the soldiers of team 1 and 3 in turns and continued: “But, thanks to your efforts, he is alive and recovering. I will do what I can to find a decent replacement for him until next tour, or you’ll have to suffice with borrowed team 2 members.”

She winked at captain Lace, who only looked at her with raised eyebrows and inclined chin.

Commander Nihad lastly looked at Tianyi, Leon and Haylen. “Recruits, you survived your first tour on the UGS Ignis. Congratulations. Well done.”

She saluted them all, and the soldiers returned the salutation. Haylen was happy he hadn’t given in to captain Avril’s offer to sit down yet.

“Alright, slackers, get a move on”, captain Avril said as the commander left the training hall. “I want to leave this piece of junk in time to catch the 12:30 shuttle this time.”

– – –

The last two hours before lunch were as bad as predicted earlier that morning. Haylen couldn’t stop sneezing and Tianyi couldn’t stop laughing at him. The cold remedies doctor Eira had provided him with took the edge of it, but that was it. His head and neck felt as stuffed with expanding sealing foam, his back ached, and everytime he moved, his pulse raced and he was out of breath in no time. He didn’t need to check his wristband to know he had a fever.

The others made sure he only had to take care of his own gear, but even if he personally had to fill in the checklist and lock everything up, they helped him carry it.

“I can do this”, he tried to protest as Morgan took the space suit box from him. This felt more and more stupid.

But Morgan pointed out that it took him twice the time to carry half the amount of equipment from changing rooms to storage, so there wasn’t really any other option than to surrender. “Besides, your lungs sound as if they’re torn apart when you cough, so consider this me saving your life in return.”

The teams had just sat down to have lunch when a prio 3 alarm went off. That meant that team 3, who were now on prim duty, had time to finish their food before they needed to gear up, but they still hurried up in case that prio level went up a notch. It wasn’t very common with alarms going off when the ship was docked, since there was usually one or two ships in the area just outside orbit, but it happened. Perhaps backup was needed somewhere.

“I bet we’ll get to know more details about the security hold up now”, Keith pointed out.

“Don’t keep your hopes up”, Hiroshi commented sourly.

As soon as team 3 had left to get ready, things calmed down in the canteen. Haylen was leaning his head in his hand, trying to force himself to eat the last on his plate. It was rather painful to swallow. It had taken him three or four more attempts to convince Sheng that he didn’t have a flu or a cold that could be passed on. Still, everytime he coughed or sneezed, the other soldier had given him wary looks.

“I got to say”, Nethan said with a teasing smile, “for a guy your size who looks like a poster boy for the Federation death squads, you have a surprisingly cute sneeze.”

Haylen rubbed his eyes with a sniffle. “Can’ all sound like crazed scale bears, eh…” he mumbled, which made Tianyi burst out in laughter.

Nethan looked at her, eyebrow raised. “Are you one to laugh? Who sound like an angry marmot?”

Tianyi began to protest, but then Felicia came back from wherever she had been.

“Hey team”, she said as she sat down, interrupting the bickering. “I just talked to Santo, and we can go to Sol’s Ward base to see him right after we land. Me and Morgan’s going, who’s with us?”

“Hell yeah”, said Keith.

“Me too”, said Tianyi, “as long as I got time to buy a candy bag for him first.”

“And roll the candies in dust first?” Morgan said.

Tianyi aimed a punch his way that he dodged mainly by leaning back. He was sitting on the other side of the table after all.

“How about you nottiners?” Felicia asked.

Haylen only shook his head and, as on cue, started to cough. If he was to visit Santo, he’d rather do it together with the rest than on his own, but contagious or not, he had learned the hard way not to do anything more than absolutely needed during a surge.

“Okay, stupid question”, Felicia noted and looked at Leon.

“I’m goin’ wit’im to Nineteen”, Leon said, and Haylen realized that he meant him.

“What, you goin’ babysit me?”

“Doc’s orders, not goin’ argue, kin.” Leon scraped his plate clean, unbothered.

“Had enough surges to know how to deal wit’em, eh.”

“Read enough journals to know you fail at times too, eh.” Leon looked at him with a sly smirk.

Haylen gave him what he hoped was a dark look. It was probably more bloodshot though.

“Ey”, Leon said and raised his hand in defence, “she wanted you in hospital care, dis be de result of me negotiatin’ for you. Dat, an’ you’ll get t’rough security easier wit’ a personal medic.”

Leon winked at him. Haylen reluctantly realized that he had a point. He hadn’t travelled with public transits during a surge in a while, but he had learned that even if he had a note on his ID with information about the kryvat, the restrictions and precautions about travellers with infections were enough to overrule any medical note if the security guards were in that mood.

– – –

There was still delays at the shuttle station, but also still no real information about what caused it. Keith’s assumption it had something to do with the alarm earlier wasn’t too far fetched though; they caught a glimpse of team 3 crossing the arrival hall further away in a hurried manner. At least it got Tianyi plenty of time to go buy candy for Santo.

Xander, who was also going on shore leave apparently, sat down next to Haylen on one of the benches in the waiting hall, careful as if he didn’t want to disturb.

“Are you going to the base after free week?” he asked, stroking an escaped strand of deep red hair behind his ear. Since he too was in a uniform, he wore his hair in a ponytail.

“Yeah”, Haylen answered, clearing his throat, “got some training, then some theoreticals to do.”

“Sounds fun.”

Haylen had to look at the TR to see if he was serious or not. Xander looked like he meant it one hundred percent.

“If you be a fan of theoreticals.”

Xander looked back puzzled, then snickered and ran a hand over his head. “I’ll be there too, there’s a couple of new systems that all TR:s are to be educated in, and, I was thinking that I might as well take the opportunity to practise my weapon skills at the same time.”

Xander paused to breath. Haylen hoped the itch in his nose would vanish.

“So I was wondering if you might have the time to give me a lesson. If you want to, of course.”

The question surprised him, but not in a bad way. “Shooting lesson, you mean?” Maybe it was a stupid question, but Haylen really didn’t felt at his brightest right now.

“Yes. I mean, I know what end to point at the target and what part to squeeze and all that, but I need some hints on the aiming and such.”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll…-” Haylen interrupted himself as he felt the urge to sneeze, but all that happened eventually was that his eyes teared up and his nose began to run again. He groaned silently and pulled a tissue from his backpack, wishing that the kryvat could have the fucking decency to lay off for five full minutes.

“I’m sorry”, Xander said all of a sudden, “this honestly can wait until you feel better.”

Haylen just shrugged, flipping his schedule up on the wristband. “I’ll feel better next week, so… Pick a time.”

Xander leaned closer and looked at the schedule. He pointed. “Would this work for you?” He looked at Haylen, blinked and leaned back a little, apparently surprised how close he was. At least Haylen hoped it was that, and not him looking too repulsive right now.

“Sure”, he said, and put ‘shooting session’ on the schedule, sending an invitation to Xander before another strong itch required another tissue. “Got it?” he asked once he was done wiping his eyes and nose.

“Yes, thank you.”

Haylen looked at the wristband chart. “I’ll send you my private tag too. I mute the AF one when I’m off duty, so…”

“Oh that’s… That’s great, thank you”, Xander said, stumbling slightly on the words as he confirmed the request.

“Doesn’t mean we’re engaged or anything”, Haylen said and closed the wristband. “That was a joke, Dots”, he added as he noticed Xander’s baffled look.

Xander blinked. And, of course, blushed. “I know”, he said, trying to sound convincing, but gave an awkward little laugh.

Haylen smirked, then had to quickly turn away because this time, he actually did start sneezing.

A few minutes later, the shuttle to Nineteen finally opened for boarding, and Haylen and Leon headed for the gates. Time for his first shore leave as a soldier in a very long time. And all that free time would be wasted on him because of the damn kryvat.

Liv is dead

To read the original Swedish version, click here.

Anya drove as fast as possible on the damaged road with deep tracks and eroded edges that led to “the Den”, as the civilians called the building that once served as dining hall and administration centre for a steel mill. She glanced at Liam in the passenger seat while hauling up the cell phone from her pocket. He was leaning his head against the window, eyes closed. She hoped he was only sleeping. The hand he had held to the bandage around his stomach and the wound under it had fell down in his lap, and there was fresh blood on it. The hunt for food in the mostly blown up city center had given them anything but food.

She reached out with her hand as the ringback tone sounded and shook his shoulder gently. “Liam, are you awake?”

He inhaled, looking up. “Yeah…”

“That’s good. Keep it up.” He was too pale.

“Hello?” she heard Ina’s voice in the other end, distorted and cut up. They had hacked into the mobile phone network but when noone was maintaining it, you had to be happy for what you got.

“Is it 2358?” Anya asked. It wasn’t asking about Ina’s number, it was asking if it was safe to talk.

“No, it’s 1392”, Ina answered, confirming it was.

“We’re there soon.”

“How is he?”

“Well, what the hell do you think, he’s shot in his stomach.”

“Circulatory collapse?”

Anya looked at Liam again. He had sunk back against the window, but at least his eyes were open now.

“It won’t be long at least”, she answered. “Did Liv and Loneh come back yet?” The two had headed for the other end of the city.

“Let’s talk about that when…” Ina fell silent.

No, Anya thought. No. “Take it now”, she said.

“Loneh’s here. Liv is dead.”

“Liv’s dead”, Anya repeated, and gave a quiet laughter. That sounded ridiculous. Then her chest began to shrink. “What…?” she said, her voice so thin all of a sudden. Her body got it. A scream of thorny darkness spread from the pit of her stomach and tightened around her throat. But the brain didn’t get it.

“A wall collapsed and she was crushed to death.” Ina sounded reluctant.

The field of vision narrowed. Everything outside the grey concrete with its potholes and torn off chunks disappeared and it wasn’t until she had to dodge the large pit that was eating its way through the road one kilometer before the guards that she realized that Ina was trying to talk to her and that she had accelerated considerably. She slowed down, met Liam’s gaze, and pressed her thumbnails into her index fingers so the tears would stay in her eyes.

“Yeah, I’m still here”, she said, answering Ina’s question. Her voice was cold. Dead. But she could break down later. Liam was still alive.

“We’re there soon. I’m hanging up.”

 

After being checked by Elvin and Mark, who were guarding at the fence around the complex, she could finally park the car at the entrance to the Den. She had to wake Liam up again, he hadn’t been able to stay awake, and she had completely forgotten about him for a while.

“Can you walk?”

He didn’t answer, but nodded some at least, and was apparently preparing to get out of the car. That was good. If he thought he could walk on his own she would let him do it. The civilians here looked up to them, the soldiers, the guardians. The less weaknesses they showed, the better.

Anya walked around the car and took a gentle hold around his arms. Ina met them, holding up the door and looked around the steel mill searchingly as if expecting an assault. They had been fine so far, but the lesson they had learned at their previous hideout was still fresh in all their minds.

“Is the bullet still there?” Ina asked as they led Liam through the corridor, past the big room where the civilians gathered at daytime when they weren’t occupied with maintenance of the Den, and to the smaller room that used to be offices but now served as hospital, storage rooms, bedrooms.

“No, it went through.”

“Are you sure?” They helped Liam lie down on the table that was Ina’s makeshift operating table. He moaned with pain when he was forced to use the injured muscles.

“One shot, two holes.”

The shooter had turned up from behind a burned out bus, aimed at them without a word, and they had raised their hands in the air, distrustfully, since it every existing radio channel announced at least once per hour that the three week long ceasefire was still in effect. Of course Anya and Liam hadn’t been unarmed, but they had carried their weapons on their backs, not even touching them, showed all signs of peaceful intentions. Then the shot had been fired. Anya had almost grabbed her own weapons to shoot that asshole, but Liam’s shaky “The hell…” had made her shift focus.

“Get outside now”, Ina said, “and when Aidin comes back you keep him away, understood?”

Anya nodded. Outside she met Ina’s assistant, Zack, who went inside to help Ina with Liam, and Loneh. Loneh who had been with Liv when she was killed.

She didn’t want to see Loneh. She didn’t want to see anyone at all. But Loneh probably had to talk to her. Say that she tried but that there had been nothing to do. She had to say it, Anya got that much, to get some of the guilt off her shoulders. She’d been in the same situation herself. Maybe Anya herself would have to explain to Aidin in a couple of hours that she had done everything she could too, but that it hadn’t been enough?

Loneh looked at her as if she was scared.

“What happened?” Anya asked, not that she really wanted to know, but so Loneh would start speaking so they could have that over and done with. She barely listened. She picked up the essential. There was no doubt that Liv had died under the collapsed wall, and that it had been a quick death. She was still there, Loneh told Anya, she hadn’t been able to dig her free and didn’t dare to stay for long. Lucky her, Anya though, or she might have got a bullet in the stomach too.

“I’m sorry”, Loneh said. Again. She had already said it three times. For what? Was she responsible for every damn wall that any of her friends happened to stand close too?

“It wasn’t your fault”, Anya answered, it was what Loneh needed to hear. Anya herself needed to punch her and shout at her how fucking stupid she had been who hadn’t looked after Liv better. Liv, who had been the oldest among them and served the longest in this temporary defence troop that once had been part of a Home Guard unit, which had lost its structure and been spread out like gnawed clean fruit cores. Some had managed to grow strong, others had rotten away. Their own group had remained strong thanks to Liv.

Then Zack came out and told Loneh to come with, she and Liam had the same blood type and he needed her blood now. Anya was grateful to be interrupted.

There was a cubby hole on the next floor that was unused. She went there, closed the door and sank down against the wall, huddled. If there was anything this war had taught her, it was to cry silently. That didn’t mean she cried calm and still. She screamed without vocal cords and grabbed her hair and clenched her fists so hard she might as well pull the hair off, the soundless sobbing shaking her whole body.

Eventually she had to take control over the crying, but she was still sobbing when the door suddenly opened and a little girl stood in the opening and looked at her with big eyes.

“Are you sad?” she asked.

Anya nodded. She had no energy to pretend. It was too late anyway.

“Yeah, I’m sad.”

“Why?”

“Because my best friend ever died today.” Her voice disappeared at the end, smothered by grief.

“Poor her.”

Anya nodded.

“Are you burying her in the lawn then?”

“Yeah. Eventually.” If there’s anything to bury when I get there, she thought, but it was unnecessary to complicate things.

The girl didn’t seem to come up with more things to say.

“What were you doing here?” Anya asked.

“We were going to play hide-and-seek.”

Anya stood up and wiped her face with her palms. “You’re not supposed to be up here and play, you should be where we can see you.”

“Then you can’t be here either.”

“No. I’m going downstairs too now.”

“Did you need to be left alone?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

God, kids were so easy sometimes. She ruffled the girl’s short black hair and followed her downstairs. She was filled with anger when she saw the burnmark the girl had at the back of her neck. It was old now, but still a wound caused by a bunch of nation leaders’ inability to act more civilized than this kid when she fought with her friends about ragdolls and wood blocks.

In the corridor below was Loneh, Zack and Aidin, and she heard Aidin’s voice long before she came within sight.

“…stay for hours but she can’t even talk to me five minutes without asking me to go to hell!”

“When she stitched him up you can go in ther, and this is the last time I’m telling you this”, Zack said sternly. “It was a whole other thing with Ella and her son, and you have to understand that.” Zack went into the hospital room again, but had time to cast an accusing glare at Anya. As if it was her fault that Aidin was mad.

Then she remembered that she had practically promised Ina to keep Aidin away from there. He had one weakness and that was Liam. Ina would have had to sedate Aidin too if he was to be in the room with them.

Without a word she grabbed his arm and dragged him off to the dining hall. In there it was murky as usual, decorative oil burners the only sources of light. What little electricity the spare generators produced – when they worked – was used for fridges and hot water, for lighting only in emergencies. Ina had proper lighting in her rooms, of course. The oil lasted long in the burners, and since the windows were covered they needed light in there.

Some people were in there, a few children playing a board game in a corner, a couple of adults conversing with low voices, yet another few people just sat there, staring emptily at nothing. There was always a subdued mood in here, except when it was radio time. Then it got thick with tension.

Aidin of course hadn’t been quiet one second on the way here. He was the only one except Liv who never let his voice be affected, who always spoke straight and clear, never husehd. But when they stepped inside the dining hall, Anya had silenced his anger over Ina’s unfair treatment with a short “Let it go”. They were the soldiers. Masks on.

And he had let it go. But Aidin rarely let things go for long.

Several years ago they could have had a cup of coffee, maybe treat themselves to a cupcake, but in this dining hall, edible things were only prepared twice a day, and nowadays it was usually canned food and grains. But they still sat down at one of the battered and worn-out tables, taking a sip from their water bottles. The instinct to drink together hadn’t left them, despite that none of them had been drinking neither coffee nor tea or alcohol in ages.

Now that Aidin lowered the bottle and inhaled to start talking again, Anya interrupted him in time.

“Do you know that Liv is dead?”

He lost momentum there, you could tell. Then he said: “Yes, I know. What, you don’t think I care? But you know what, Liam’s still fighting for his life, so I’m sorry if I’m not up for crying my eyes out over Liv right now.”

“Mm. You know, I’m kind of thinking the same. Only the opposite. At least Liam’s still alive.”

They looked at each other, silently, both of them equally angry and hurt. Loneh shifted uncomfortably beside them.

“Ina’s fighting for Liam’s life too”, she said, quietly.

Aidin sighed and leaned back in his chair with his face buried in his hands. Anya felt the tears burn behind her eyelids and pressed her knuckles against her lips, pretending to only be leaning on it.

“Okay, I’m not going to compete with you on who’s feeling worst, Aidin”, she said after a while, “I’m just so damn…” There was no reason to try to find the right word, whichever they filled in would be as fitting. Tired, sad, mournful, dejected, angry…

One of the civilians put the radio up on the counter where the food used to be served. It was time for evening broadcast. Public service were still broadcasting, if very limited. At least they got the most important news. Sometimes you could tune in foreign broadcasts, transmitted from pirate stations. They had access to internet at the beginning, but a virus had ruined all the computers at the Den a couple of months ago.

The national anthem was played. That one and other songs that possibly could put the people in a better mood used to play when no other broadcasts were on. When it ended this time, there wasn’t the usual phrase of greeting from the radio host, but someone who shouted out a few words that Anya first couldn’t wrap her head around.

“We have peace! A peace treaty has been signed and enemy forces are expected to withdraw without further delay. Once again, we have peace!”

A few gasps were heard from the people in the room. Several began to cry, most of them laughing at the same time, some hugged each other tightly, others just sat quiet and looked at each other. The radio host continued to inform about the treaty details, but Anya weren’t listening. She and her siblings in arms looked at each other, silently, without moving, until Loneh took their hands and they united in some kind of embrace around the table. Tears were running down Anya’s cheeks, and she heard Loneh and Aidin start laughing that kind of laugh that is equal part crying.

Someone began to remove the window bars, but then Anya stood up.

“Leave them for now. It’ll take a while before all the enemy units get what this is about.” It killed some of the joy, she could tell, but she wasn’t letting more people die, not now.

Peace. A strange word. They had been waiting to hear it so long now that it wasn’t possible to understand it completely now they finally got it. What did it really mean? Would the UN and Red Cross be outside with flowers and marching bands and medics if she opened the door now? Would they go back to their homes, finding them repaired and repainted? Everything was ruined, wasn’t it? Liv was dead. The only thing that would be different was that they wouldn’t have to be afraid of being shot to death by enemies. But who else of their own would decide to shoot you only because you happened to be looking for canned food in an abandoned shopping center…?

The rest of the night, everyone found it hard to focus on anything at all. People were singing and dancing one minute, in the next someone held a quiet memorial speech or told a story from the war that had been, sometimes they all sat in silence, thinking or crying.

Aidin was sitting with Liam, who still hadn’t woken up but that they had all helped moving to the soldiers’ sleeping quarters. Ina and Zack were having a well deserved pause to eat and digest the news of the peace treaty.

Anya and Loneh had gone out to Elvin and Mark, who were on guard duty, early to tell the news, and after the scarce dinner on tomato pulp and some kind of soup that the kitchen staff for the night had heated up, they went to release the two for the night. Anya didn’t trust that it was safe, no matter how many peace treaties that had been signed.

Since they were two man short, they had decided to split the night in two guard shifts instead of three, and let Aidin stay with Liam. Not even Ina could stay awake 24 hours a day, and if Liam would survive, she needed help. Zack already had a lot of civilians to take care of.
At three in the morning, Elvin and Mark came outside again.

“It’s so bloody crazy, I can swear it feels lighter and more beautiful here than yesterday morning”, Elvin said. He hadn’t been able to grin happily since the broadcast.

Mark only yawned and adjusted the weapon on his back. He spoke even less than Liam, but unlike Liam, Mark seemed to be quiet because he didn’t have anything clever to say, rather than holding in things noone would understand anyway. It was only Liv that Liam really had been talking to. Her and Anya. And Aidin of course, but those two spoke best on their own, it seemed.

Inside the building, they found Ina in a hushed argument with Aidin.

“There’s so little analgesics left that I can’t give him any more, I need a reserve.”

“What, until anyone gets injured for real?” Aidin’s voice were dripping in sarcasm, but it was only his way to deal with the fear.

“Liam’s in for a rough time, but he’ll make it, with your help.”

Ina had the ability to be a tough negotiator and come off as very empathic at the same time. Aidin wasn’t pleased with the answer, however, but left anyway. Ina sighed.

“How long do you think it will be before someone comes to our rescue, you think?” Loneh asked.

Ina shrugged. “I’ve never been in a war before, I have no idea. Yrsa has sent out emergency calls every day, someone should have caught them. Even if they haven’t dared to answer.”

“We have vehicles”, Anya said, “we can go to one of the cities at the coast to see if the authorities has gained control there.” Every muscle itched to leave this place. The walls were crushing her.

“Not enough to bring everyone. And then we’ll have quarrels about who gets to go and who has to stay. We also don’t know how far the fuel will take us.”

The voice of reason. Ina.

“There will be quarrels on why we’re not leaving too.”

“It’s as usual then, smile and assure them we’ll take care of them.” Loneh smirked at Anya. Anya rolled her eyes. Loneh was the skilled smiler, not she. Loneh yawned and slapped Anya’s arm gently. “We need to sleep, if we’re going to make another guarding shift in four hours.”

Inside their small makeshift dormitory, Liam was lying pale and cold sweating on the thin mat that served as mattress, and there was no doubt he was in horrible pain. Aidin sat next to him and stroke his hair, silent for a change. Anya was once again hit by the irony of it all. Liv had tripped and fell just before the finish line. Liam had crossed it, but might see the winner’s trophy being taken away from him.

She turned to the wall when tears filled her eyes again. Not that she was ashamed of them, but she didn’t want to burden the others.

 

After the morning guard shift, when they were eating their minimal daily ration of thin porridge, Anya told Loneh and Zack that she was going to take Liv back.

“You can’t do that alone”, Loneh said reluctantly.

“I don’t give a crap, I want to bury her.”

Loneh rubbed her forehead. Zack said nothing.

“The only tools we got are sledgehammers and skewers. We might just… destroy her.” Loneh looked at her plate with an unhappy look, stirring the remains of the porridge with her spoon. “It’s better to wait for help.”

“What bloody help?”

“Well, whoever gets here first. The armed forces or Red Cross or someone else.”

“She’ll be eaten by ravens and shit before that happens. I’ll take her home today.” Anya prepared to leave.

“But Anya…”

Anya slammed her palm into the table, startling both Loneh and Zack. She opened her mouth to say something, but she couldn’t find the words for it.

“Can I go pee first?” Loneh said, eventually. She stood up too with a dejected sullenness that was unusual for her. Anya understood that it would be trying on Loneh to go back to the place where Liv died for her. But at the same time she had to do it, as much as Anya had to bury Liv.

“Be careful”, Zack said. “I’m tired watching Ina stitch up intestines.”

“Yeah, we’ll be careful only for you, Zack.” Anya meant it like a joke, but it was still a relief to see Zack’s faint smile. She didn’t always manage to keep the hardness out of her voice.

 

They drove as close to the city center as they could, took their tools with them and climbed the last part of the way over collapsed buildings, car wrecks and debris. The first thing Anya saw was Liv’s foot. It was covered by dust and sticking out from under the heavy concrete slab that once had been part of the wall of a block of flats where people had lived, lulled babies, argued about tv-shows, burnt fish stews on the stove, played heroes and villains, dreamt, loved. She felt a lump of unease in the pit of her stomach, but forced herself to keep moving forward. Loneh was following her closely.

It took time. If they had had enough food, if they had been rested, then it might have gone faster. If it had been peace, they would have a whole rescue service department to help them. If it had been peace, the wall would never have fallen over Liv…

When they finally had removed enough of the concrete to pull Liv out, the energy sort of left them. Her upper body, head and face were squeezed and flattened, tried blood and dust formed a second skin on her, everything was stiff and deformed and wrong. And yet, it was Liv.

Anya was the first one to cry. Loneh put her arms around her, and she hugged back, hard, and for the first time in ages she allowed herself to use her voice when she cried. “To hell with them”, she whimpered, and stared through the tears out over the ruined city, while Loneh was sobbing in her arms. She didn’t know exactly who she meant by ‘them’, but it didn’t matter. Her accusations needed somewhere to go.

Eventually, the weep subsided at both of them. Anya didn’t want to let go, but they had to finish what they came here for. They carried Liv back to the car, something that went easier than Anya had expected since the body was still stiff. They put her in the backseat, and had to use force to bend Liv’s legs so they could close the door. After that, Loneh had to throw up.

 

They buried Liv at the same place they had buried the other people who had died during the time in the Den, a patch of grass between two of the large industry buildings. They hadn’t dared to perform any funerals outside the fence of the steelmill in case enemy soldiers or looters attacked them or the graves. When Liv’s grave was filled, they marked it with steel beams and stones, just like the others. It felt good. Not that Anya believed that a dead body would care about where it was decomposed to earth again, but she got a proper closure for herself. It made the powerlessness and anger to settle down a bit.

All the soldiers were there, even Liam was determinedly and with Aidin’s support standing there when Anya, Loneh, Elvin and Mark had helped out to put Liv down in the grave. Somehow it went without saying that Anya should say something, she who had been closest to Liv, but as usual she couldn’t find any good words for it.

“You’re the best, Liv”, she finally said. “It hurts like hell and I will always miss you, I bet all the others here will too, but as long as you were alive you were the best. Always.”

That was all she could manage, but no one seemed dissatisfied. When they all were leaving, Loneh lingered a moment, and Anya could hear her whisper “Forgive me, Liv” to the silent grave.

Anya waited for her, then they went back together. “It wasn’t your fault”, Anya said again.

“I know”, Loneh answered. She sighed. “We’ll carry her with us. It’s the best we can do, right?”

Anya nodded. “I guess it is.”

Liv är död (Swedish)

To read the English version, click here.

Anya körde så snabbt det var möjligt på den spåriga kantfrätta vägen som ledde till “Lyan” som de civila kallade den byggnad som en gång fungerat som matsal och administrativt centrum för ett stålverk. Hon sneglade på Liam i sätet bredvid medan hon fiskade upp mobilen ur fickan. Han satt lutad mot rutan med ögonen slutna. Hon hoppades att han bara sov. Handen han hållit mot bandaget om magen och såret därunder hade fallit ner i knät, och det var nytt blod på den. Jakten på mat inne i den sönderbombade stadskärnan hade givit dem allt annat än just mat.

Hon sträckte ut handen medan signalerna gick fram, skakade lätt hans axel. “Liam, är du vaken?”

Han andades in och tittade upp. “Ja…”

“Det är bra. Fortsätt så.” Han var alldeles för blek.

“Hallå?” hörde hon Inas röst i andra änden, uppstyckad och förvrängd. De hade hackat sig in på mobilnätet men när ingen fanns som underhöll det fick man vara glad för det lilla.

“Är det 2358?” frågade Anya. Det var inte Inas nummer, utan en fråga om det var säkert att prata.

“Nej, det är 1392”, svarade hon och bekräftade därmed att det var säkert.

“Vi är snart framme.”

“Hur mår han?”

“Ja vafan tror du, han är skjuten i magen…”

“Cirkulationssvikt?”

Anya tittade på Liam igen. Han hade sjunkit tillbaka mot fönstret men ögonen var åtminstone öppna. “Det dröjer nog inte länge i alla fall,” svarade hon. “Har Liv och Lone kommit tillbaka?” De hade tagit andra änden av staden.

“Vi tar det när…” Ina tystnade.

Nej, tänkte Anya. Nej. “Ta det nu,” sa hon högt.

“Zack är här. Liv är död.”

“Liv är död,” upprepade hon, och skrattade tyst till. Det lät ju inte klokt. Sen började bröstet krympa. “Va…?” sa hon, rösten plötsligt så tunn. Kroppen fattade. Ett skrik av taggigt mörker spred sig från mellangärdet och snörde ihop halsen. Men hjärnan fattade inte.

“En vägg rasade och hon klämdes ihjäl under.” Ina lät motvillig.

Synfältet smalnade. Allt runt omkring den grå asfalten med sina gropar och losslitna bitar försvann och det var inte förrän hon var tvungen att väja för den stora grop som ätit sig in vid vägkanten en kilometer innan vakten som hon insåg att Ina försökte prata med henne och att hon ökat hastigheten avsevärt. Hon saktade ner, mötte Liams blick, och nöp in tumnaglarna i pekfingrarna så tårarna skulle stanna i ögonen.

“Ja jag är kvar,” sa hon som svar på Inas fråga. Rösten var kall. Död. Men bryta ihop kunde hon göra sen. Liam levde fortfarande. “Vi kommer snart. Jag lägger på nu.”

 

Efter att ha blivit kollade av Elvin och Mark som stod på vakt vid anläggningens stängsel kunde hon äntligen ställa bilen vid ingången till lyan. Hon fick väcka Liam igen, han hade inte fixat att hålla sig vaken och hon hade helt glömt bort honom efter en stund.

“Kan du gå?”

Han svarade inte, men nickade i alla fall lite och det märktes att han förberedde sig på att kliva ur. Det var bra. Om han trodde att han kunde gå själv skulle hon låta honom göra det. De civila här såg upp till dem, soldaterna, beskyddarna. Ju mindre svagheter de visade desto bättre.

Hon gick runt och tog ett lätt tag om hans armar. Ina mötte dem, hon höll upp dörren och spanade samtidigt ut över stålverket som om hon förväntade sig ett överfall. De hade klarat sig hittills, men läxan från förra gömstället var fortfarande färsk.

“Sitter kulan kvar?” frågade hon medan de ledde Liam genom korridoren, förbi det stora rummet där de civila samlades om dagarna när de inte var sysselsatta med driften av Lyan, och bort till de små rummen som varit kontor men nu fungerade som sjukstuga, förråd, sovrum.

“Nej, den gick igenom.”

“Är du säker?” De hjälpte Liam att lägga sig på det bord som tjänade som Inas provisoriska operationsbord. Han kved av smärta när han tvingades använda de skadade musklerna.

“Ett skott, två hål.”

Skytten hade dykt upp bakom en utbränd buss, siktat på dem utan ett ord, och de hade höjt händerna, vantroget, eftersom det matats ut säkert en gång i timmen på varenda radiokanal att vapenstillestånd rådde sedan tre veckor tillbaks. Det var klart att hon och Liam inte varit obeväpnade, men de hade burit sina vapen på ryggen, inte ens hållit i dem, visat alla tecken på att vara fredliga. Sedan hade skottet brunnit av. Anya hade varit nära att slita fram sitt eget vapen och skjuta den jäveln, men Liams skakiga “Fan…” hade fått henne att fokusera om.

“Gå ut nu, och när Aidin kommer tillbaka så håller du honom härifrån, förstått?”

Anya nickade. I dörren mötte hon Inas assistent, Zack, som fortsatte in för att hjälpa Ina med Liam, och Lone. Lone som varit med Liv när hon dödades.

Hon ville inte träffa Lone. Hon ville inte träffa någon alls. Men Lone behövde säkert prata med Anya. Säga att hon försökt men att det inte funnits något att göra. Hon måste få säga det, Anya förstod det, för att få av någon del av skuldkänslorna från axlarna. Hon hade själv varit i den situationen. Kanske skulle hon få förklara för Aidin om några timmar att hon också gjort allt hon kunnat men att det inte varit nog?
Lone såg på henne som om hon var rädd.

“Vad hände?” frågade Anya, inte för att hon egentligen ville veta utan för att Lone skulle börja prata så de fick det överstökat. Hon lyssnade knappt. Det väsentliga gick fram. Det hade inte varit någon tvekan om att Liv dött under den raserade väggen, och det hade gått fort. Hon låg fortfarande kvar, sade Lone, hon hade inte kunnat gräva loss henne och hade inte vågat stanna längre. Tur det, tänkte Anya, då kanske hon också haft ett skott i magen.

“Förlåt,” sade Lone igen. Igen. Hon hade redan sagt det tre gånger. Vad fanns att förlåta? Hade hon ansvar för varenda jävla vägg som någon av hennes vänner råkade stå nära?

“Det var inte ditt fel,” svarade Anya, det var det Lone behövde höra. Själv behövde Anya smälla till henne och skrika åt henne hur jävla dum hon varit som inte sett bättre efter Liv, Liv som varit äldst av dem och tjänstgjort längst i detta provisoriska försvar som en gång varit någon form av hemvärn men nu förlorat strukturen och spritts ut som äppelskruttar. Några lyckades växa sig starka, andra ruttnade bort. Deras egen grupp hade varit stark tack vare Liv.

Så kom Zack dit och sa att Lone måste komma med, hon och Liam hade samma blodgrupp och han behövde hennes blod nu. Anya var tacksam över att bli avbruten.

Det fanns en liten skrubb på våningen ovanför som ingen använde. Dit gick hon, stängde dörren och sjönk ner mot väggen, hopkrupen. Var det något hon hade lärt sig under kriget så var det att gråta tyst. Det betydde inte att gråten var lugn och stilla. Hon skrek utan stämband och grep så hårt om håret att det lika gärna kunde ha lossnat, snyftade ljudlöst så hela hon skakade.

Till sist måste hon få gråten under kontroll, men snyftningarna hade inte slutat när dörren plötsligt öppnades och en liten flicka stod i öppningen och tittade på henne med stora ögon.

“Är du ledsen?” frågade hon.

Anya nickade. Hon orkade inte låtsas. Det var förresten redan försent. “Ja, jag är ledsen.”

“Varför det?”

“För att min allra bästa vän dog idag.” Rösten försvann på slutet, kvävdes av mer sorg.

“Stackars henne.”

Anya nickade.

“Ska du gräva ner henne i gräset då?”

“Ja. Så småningom.” Om det finns något att gräva ner när jag väl får möjlighet, tänkte hon, men det var onödigt att komplicera saken.

Flickan såg inte ut som att hon kom på något mer att säga.

“Vad skulle du göra här?” frågade Anya.

“Vi skulle leka kurragömma.”

Anya reste sig och torkade av ansiktet. “Ni ska inte vara häruppe och leka, ni ska vara där vi kan se er.”

“Då får inte du heller vara här.”

“Nej. Jag ska också gå ner nu.”

“Behövde du vara ifred?”

“Ja.”

“Jaha.”

Gud vad det var enkelt med ungar ibland. Hon rufsade om i flickans korta svarta hår och följde efter henne ner. Hon blev arg när hon såg brännmärket flickan hade i nacken. Det var gammalt nu, men det var ändå ett sår som orsakats av en samling nationsledares oförmåga att bete sig mer civiliserat än den här ungen när hon bråkade med sina kompisar om trasdockor och träklossar.

I korridoren nedanför befann sig Lone, Zack och Aidin, och hon hörde Aidins röst långt innan hon kom inom synhåll.

“…stanna i flera timmar men mig kan hon inte ens snacka med fem minuter utan att hon ber mig dra åt helvete!”

“När hon har sytt ihop honom får du komma in och det är sista gången jag säger det nu. Det var en annan sak med Ella och hennes son och det måste du förstå.” Zack gick in i sjukrummet igen, men hann med att slänga en anklagande blick på Anya. Som om det var hennes fel att Aidin var arg. Sen kom hon ihåg att hon i princip lovat att hålla Aidin därifrån. Han hade en svaghet och det var Liam, Ina skulle behövt söva Aidin också om han skulle ha varit därinne.

Utan ett ord tog hon hans arm och drog iväg med honom bort till matsalen. Därinne var det som vanligt skumt, de enda ljuskällorna var enstaka oljelampor gjorda för dekoration. Den lilla el som reservgeneratorerna alstrade – när de funkade – användes till kylskåp och varmvatten, och bara i nödfall till ljus. Ina hade till exempel ordentliga lampor på sitt rum. Lampoljan räckte länge och fönstren var så väl förbommade att det behövdes ljus därinne.

Några människor befann sig därinne, några barn spelade ett spel i ett hörn, några vuxna samtalade lågt i ett annat, åter andra satt och stirrade tomt framför sig. Det rådde alltid en dämpad stämning här förutom när det var dags för radio. Då blev stämningen tät och spänd.

Aidin hade förstås inte hållit klaffen på hela vägen. Han var den enda förutom Liv som aldrig låtit rösten påverkas, som alltid talade rakt och tydligt, aldrig dämpat. Men när de klivit in hade Anya tystat hans ilska över Inas orättvisa behandling med ett kort “Ge dig nu.” De var soldaterna. På med masken.

Och han hade gett sig. Men Aidins tystnad varade sällan länge.

För flera år sedan hade de kunnat ta en kopp kaffe, kanske lyxat till det med en muffins, men i den här matsalen lagades ätbara saker till två gånger om dagen och nuförtiden var det mest konserver och gryn. Men de satte sig ändå vid ett av de slitna och illa medfarna borden och tog varsin klunk ur varsin vattenflaska. Instinkten att dricka ihop hade inte gått ur dem, fastän ingen av dem druckit vare sig kaffe eller te eller alkohol på evigheter.

När nu Aidin tog flaskan från munnen och drog efter andan för att sätta igång igen hann Anya avbryta honom.

“Vet du att Liv är död?”

Han kom av sig lite, det märktes. “Ja, det vet jag,” svarade han sedan. “Vadå, tror du inte att jag bryr mig om det? Men vet du, Liam kämpar fortfarande för sitt liv så förlåt om jag inte riktigt pallar med att grina över Liv just nu.”

“Mm. Vet du, jag tänker lite likadant. Fast tvärtom. Liam lever i alla fall.”

De såg på varandra under tystnad, bägge lika arga och sårade. Lone skruvade på sig bredvid dem.

“Ina kämpar också för Liams liv,” sade Lone tyst.

Aidin suckade och lutade sig tillbaka i stolen med ansiktet i händerna. Anya kände tårarna bränna i ögonen och tryckte knogen mot läppen under förevändning att hon bara lutade sig mot den. “Okej, jag tänker inte tävla om vem som mår sämst, Aidin,” sade hon sedan, “jag är bara så jävla…” Det fanns ingen anledning att försöka hitta rätt ord, vilket de själva än fyllde i skulle det ha varit rätt. Trött, ledsen, sorgsen, uppgiven, förbannad…

Borta vid disken där maten brukade ställas upp lyfte en civil fram radion. Det var dags för kvällssändning. Public service sände fortfarande, om än i väldigt begränsad form. De fick i alla fall de viktigaste nyheterna. Ibland kunde man höra utländska sändningar, vidaresända från piratstationer. De hade kommit åt internet i början, men virus hade förstört alla datorerna för några månader sedan.

Nationalsången spelades. Den och andra sånger som möjligen kunde få befolkningen på bättre humör brukade spelas när inga andra sändningar var igång. När den nu tystnade kom inte den vanliga hälsningsfrasen, utan någon ropade rakt ut några ord som Anyas huvud först inte kunde förstå.

“Det är fred! Fredsavtal har slutits och fiendestyrkor förväntas utan dröjsmål dra sig tillbaka. Återigen, det är fred!”

Spridda flämtningar hördes från människorna i rummet. Flera började gråta, de flesta skrattade samtidigt, de kramade hårt om varandra, andra satt bara tysta och såg på varandra. Radiorösten fortsatte berätta detaljer om fredsslutandet men Anya hörde inte på. Hon och hennes stridskamrater såg tyst på varandra utan att röra sig, tills Lone tog deras händer och de förenades i någon sorts omfamning där runt bordet. Tårarna rann nerför Anyas kinder, och hon hörde Lone och Aidin börja skratta den där sortens skratt som är lika mycket gråt.

Någon började ge sig på förbomningarna, men då reste sig Anya. “Låt dem sitta. Det kommer att dröja innan alla fiendestyrkor fattat vad det är frågan om.” Det tog död på lite av glädjen, det märktes, men hon tänkte inte låta fler människor dö, inte nu.

Fred. Ett märkligt ord. De hade väntat på att få höra det så länge nu att det inte gick att förstå fullt ut nu när de äntligen fått det. Vad betydde det egentligen? Skulle FN och Röda Korset stå utanför med blommor och orkestrar och sjukvårdare om hon öppnade dörren nu? Skulle de få åka hem till sina bostäder och finna dem reparerade och nymålade? Allt var ju förstört. Liv var död. Det enda som skulle vara annorlunda var att de inte skulle behöva vara rädda för att bli ihjälskjutna av fiender. Men vem mer av de egna skulle få för sig att skjuta en för att man var ute efter konserver i ett övergivet köpcentrum…?

Resten av kvällen var det svårt att fokusera på någonting alls, för alla som bodde i lyan. Än var det någon dom sjöng och dansade, än höll någon ett stillsamt minnestal eller berättade en historia från kriget som varit, än satt alla tysta och tänkte eller grät för sig själva. Aidin satt hos Liam som fortfarande inte vaknat men som de hjälpts åt att flytta till soldaternas sovutrymme, Ina och Zack tog en välbehövlig vila för att äta och smälta nyheten om fred.

Anya och Lone hade tidigt gått ut till Elvin och Mark som hade vakten och berättat nyheten, och efter att ha ätit den skrala middag på krossade tomater och någon form av soppa som kvällens köksansvariga värmt gick de ut för att lösa av vakterna inför natten. Anya litade inte på att faran var över, så fred det var.

Eftersom de var två man kort hade de bestämt sig för att lägga två vaktpass den natten istället för tre, och att låta Aidin stanna hos Liam. Inte ens Ina kunde vara vaken dygnet runt, och om Liam skulle överleva behövde hon hjälp. Zack hade redan flera av de civila att se till.

Vid tretiden kom Elvin och Mark ut igen.

“Det är fan helt knäppt, jag kan svära på att det känns ljusare och vackrare här nu än igår morse,” sade Elvin som inte tycktes ha slutat flina lyckligt ända sedan radiosändningen. Mark bara gäspade och rättade till vapnet på ryggen. Han pratade ännu mindre än vad Liam gjorde, men till skillnad från Liam tycktes Mark vara tyst för att han inte hade något vettigt att säga, snarare än han höll inne med sånt som ändå ingen skulle fatta. Det var egentligen bara Liv som Liam verkligen pratat med. Henne och Anya. Och Aidin förstås men de två pratade bäst ensamma vad det verkade.

Inne i byggnaden stod Ina och grälade dämpat med Aidin.

“Det är så lite smärtstillande kvar så jag kan inte ge honom mera, jag måste ha en reserv.”

“Vadå, tills någon blir skadad på riktigt?” Aidins röst badade i sarkasm, men det var inget annat än hans sätt att hantera rädslan.

“Det blir tufft för Liam men han kommer att fixa det, med din hjälp.”

Ina hade förmågan att både vara stenhård förhandlare och samtidigt verka empatisk. Aidin var inte nöjd med svaret men gick ändå därifrån. Ina suckade.

“Hur länge dröjer det innan någon kommer till undsättning tror du?” frågade Lone.

Ina ryckte på axlarna. “Jag har aldrig varit med om krig förut, jag har ingen aning. Yrsa har ju sänt hjälpmeddelanden varje dag, någon borde ju ha uppfattat dem. Även om de inte har vågat svara.”

“Vi har fordon,” sade Anya, “vi kan ta oss till någon av kuststäderna och se om myndigheterna fått kontroll där.” Det kliade i varenda muskel att få komma härifrån. Väggarna tryckte sönder henne.

“Inte tillräckligt många för att ta med allihop. Och då kommer det att bli bråk om vem som ska stanna. Sen vet vi inte om drivmedlet räcker heller.”

Förnuftets röst. Ina.

“Det kommer att bli bråk om varför vi inte åker också.”

“Det är väl som vanligt då, le och försäkra dem om att vi tar hand om dem.” Lone smålog mot Anya. Anya himlade med ögonen. Det var Lone som var bra på att le, inte hon.

Lone gäspade och daskade till Anya på armen. “Nu sover vi, om vi ska fixa ett pass till om fyra timmar.”

Inne i deras lilla sovsal låg Liam blek och kallsvettig på den tunna matta som tjänade som madrass, och det gick inte att undgå att han hade fruktansvärt ont. Aidin satt intill honom och strök honom över håret, tyst för en gångs skull. Anya slogs återigen av ironin i det hela. Liv hade snubblat strax innan mållinjen. Liam hade kommit över men skulle kanske få se pokalen tas ifrån honom.

Hon vände sig mot väggen när tårarna kom igen. Inte för att hon skämdes, utan för att hon inte ville tynga de andra mer.

 

Efter morgonens vaktpass, när de satt och petade i sig den dagliga minimala ransonen tunn gröt, sade Anya till Lone och Zack att hon tänkte hämta Liv.

“Det klarar du inte ensam,” sade Lone motvilligt.

“Det skiter jag i, jag vill begrava henne.”

Lone gned sig om pannan. Zack sade ingenting.

“Det enda vi har att jobba med är släggor och spett. Vi kanske bara… förstör henne.” Lone såg olyckligt ner i tallriken och rörde runt lite i grötresterna. “Det är väl bättre att vi väntar på hjälpen.”

“Vilken jävla hjälp?”

“Ja, vilka som nu hinner först. Försvaret eller Röda Korset eller någon annan.”

“Innan dess hinner hon bli uppäten av korpar och skit. Jag ska hämta hem henne idag.” Hon gjorde sig klar för att gå.

“Men Anya…”

Anya dängde handflatan i bordet så både Lone och Zack hoppade till. Hon öppnade munnen för att säga något, men hon kunde inte hitta några bra ord.

“Får jag kissa först?” sade Lone till sist. Hon reste sig också med en uppgiven surmulenhet som var ovanlig för henne. Anya förstod att det skulle bli jobbigt för Lone att gå tillbaka till platsen där Liv dött ifrån henne. Men samtidigt var hon tvungen att göra det, lika tvungen som Anya var att begrava Liv.

“Var försiktiga,” sade Zack. “Jag är trött på att se Ina sy ihop inälvor.”

“Ja, vi ska vara försiktiga enbart för din skull, Zack.” Anya menade det som ett skämt, men blev ändå lite lättad när hon såg Zacks lilla leende. Hon fixade inte alltid att hålla hårdheten ur rösten.

 

De körde så nära stadskärnan de kunde, tog sina redskap och klättrade sista biten över rasmassor, bilvrak och skräphögar. Det första hon såg var Livs fot. Den var täckt av damm och stack ut under den tunga betongplattan som en gång utgjort en del av väggen till ett hyreshus där människor bott, vyssjat barn, bråkat om tv-program, bränt vid fiskgrytor, lekt hjältar och skurkar, drömt, älskat. Hon kände en klump av obehag i magen men tvingade sig ändå att gå framåt. Lone följde henne steget efter.

Det tog tid. Om de hade haft ordentligt med mat med sig, om de varit utvilade, då kanske det hade gått fortare. Om det hade varit fred hade de haft en hel räddningskår till hjälp. Om det hade varit fred hade väggen aldrig rasat över Liv… När de till sist fått loss så mycket av betongblocket att det gick att dra fram Liv gick kraften liksom ur dem. Hennes överkropp, huvud och ansikte var hoptryckta, torkat blod och damm utgjorde en andra hud på henne, allting var stelt och deformerat och fel. Ändå var det Liv.

Anya var den första som började gråta. Lone lade armarna om henne och hon kramade tillbaka, hårt, och för första gången på mycket mycket länge tillät hon sig att använda rösten när hon grät. “Fan ta dem,” kved hon och stirrade genom tårarna tomt ut över den förstörda staden, medan Lone snyftade i hennes famn. Hon visste inte egentligen exakt vilka hon menade med “dem”, men det spelade ingen roll. Någonstans måste hennes anklagelser ta vägen.

Till sist lade sig gråten hos dem båda. Anya ville inte släppa, men de måste avsluta det de kommit hit för. De bar Liv tillbaka till bilen, något som gick lättare än Anya väntat eftersom kroppen fortfarande var stel. De lade henne i baksätet och då var de tvungna att ta i ordentligt för att böja Livs ben så att de kunde stänga dörren. Efter det var Lone tvungen att kräkas.

 

De begravde Liv på samma ställe som de andra människorna som dött under tiden de bott i Lyan, en gräsplätt mellan två av de stora industrilokalerna. De hade inte vågat genomföra begravningar utanför stålverkets stängsel ifall att fiendesoldater eller plundrare gav sig på dem eller gravarna. När graven var igenfylld märkte de ut den med stålbalkar och stenar precis som de andra. Det kändes bra. Inte för Anya trodde att en död kropp kunde bry sig om var den bröts ner till jord igen, men för att hon själv fick ett ordentligt avslut. Det fick vanmakten och ilskan att lägga sig något.

Alla soldaterna var där, till och med Liam hade sammanbitet och med Aidins stöd stått där när Anya, Lone, Elvin och Mark hjälpts åt att lägga Liv i graven. På något sätt var det underförstått att Anya borde säga något, hon som stått Liv närmast, men hon kunde som vanligt inte hitta några bra ord.

“Du är bäst Liv,” fick hon till sist ur sig. “Det gör så jävla ont nu och jag kommer alltid att sakna dig, det lär alla andra också, men så länge du levde var du bäst. Jämt.”

Det blev inte mer än så, men ingen verkade missnöjd. När de alla var på väg därifrån dröjde Lone ett ögonblick, och Anya hörde hur hon viskade ett “Förlåt Liv” till den tysta graven.

Anya väntade in Lone, sedan gick de tillsammans tillbaka. “Det var inte ditt fel,” sade Anya igen.

“Jag vet,” svarade Lone. Hon suckade. “Vi får bära henne med oss. Det är väl det bästa vi kan göra.”

Anya nickade. “Det är väl det.”

Incoming: From the drawer

I’ve been writing a lot of stuff through the years, and sometimes I stumble upon older pieces when digging through my drawers, digital as well as literal. Some of them will be published here, and they will fall under the category “From the drawer”.

Now, I haven’t found a way to make the category show on top of each post, which means that you have to scroll down to the bottom to see what category the post belongs to. This isn’t optimal, since you might start reading something you think is set in the Sci-fi-verse and then get ultimately confused since nothing makes sense or even is familiar. But it has to do for now.

That said, brace yourself for the first From the drawer-piece.

Corporal duty

“I’m not saying it’s wrong, I only…-”

“You just said it was!”

“No, I didn’t! Look…”

Haylen heard Cory’s and Felicia’s voices even before he went inside the shuttle hall with his gear. There was a couple of smaller room for weapon and armor maintenance, but the soldiers usually sat on the floor in the more spacey shuttle hall unless there were a lot of small parts involved. Haylen considered using that other room for half a second, but put his things down where the others were anyway.

The shuttle hall wasn’t very crowded this morning. The scouts and Morgan were in the workshop for technical equipment, taking care of and filling up their air tanks. Paavo was still locked up at the med bay, probably more to keep him from unnecessary use of his leg rather than actual medical surveillance, and Rashida’s concussion made it impossible for her to even turn her head without throwing up, and was ordered to rest in bed.

That left Matsuko and Mourad from team 3, who were quietly focusing on their own work, and Tianyi, who was engaged in Cory’s and Felicia’s discussion. As Haylen sat down, Cory briefly looked at him before he took a deep breath and continued to explain to Felicia and Tianyi.

“What I’m saying is, that in this galaxy, humankind is struggling. We have stillborn babies, babies born without arms or legs, babies born with flawed inner organs – the people is growing frail. This means we need as many people as possible to reproduce, to get more able people actually making it into adulthood, and to adapt quicker to life at least in this solar system. And, since it takes two components to make a baby, people should consider that when choosing a partner.”

“Oh, you think it’s our duty to have children?” said Tianyi, her usual cheeriness having a scrappy touch to it. She was brushing a legplate clean, but her ribcage was pretty sore from last day’s mission, and it was obvious she would need help eventually if she wanted to be done before lunch.

“I never said ‘duty’”, Cory objected, “I just think that sometimes people think too much about themselves as individuals instead of part of a society.”

“So if two people love each other”, Tianyi said, “and they happen to be two ciswomen, you think they’re being selfish?”

Cory shook his head dismissively. “I wish you people would stop putting words in my mouth.”

“But you’re not answering the question”, Felicia urged, sounding as angry as she looked, in tailor seat leaning forward with her hands on her knees.

Cory raised his eyebrows. “I don’t even know what the question is any longer.”

Before Felicia got to remind him, Tianyi interrupted.

“Then what is it that makes you so upset with this whole same-sex partner thing, is it the lack of baby making?”

Cory scoffed softly. “I’m not upset about anything, it’s you who are.” He gestured at them.

“Okay, okay”, Tianyi said, raising her hand, “what if I hooked up with, say… Halo’s girlfriend.”

Haylen silently looked up at her. She knew he found it annoying that she still insisted on calling Ziva his girlfriend, and she enjoyed every time she got to say it. She grinned, and continued.

“Let’s also say we found a couple of suitably equipped people to produce offspring with, then you would be all fine and dandy about two women having a romantic relation?”

“I would say”, Cory said, slowly as if weighing his words, “that you at least were thinking about our species’ survival.”

Felicia wasn’t satisfied though, and her voice was even sharper now.

“But what you said was that you don’t like to see non cis-hetero couples.”

“Again, I never said that…”

“You said, and I quote, ‘I think it’s sad’ when I told you about my cousin and her girlfriend!”

“If you’re quoting me, at least humor me enough not to leave any parts out”, Cory answered dryly. “I said it was sad that she didn’t even bother to try out a cismale partner.”

“How the hell is that not saying it’s wrong?”

“Because not all unnatural things are wrong.”

Felicia threw her head back in disbelief. “Oh my god, ‘unnatural’!? What are you, an old-earther?”

“That’s you having a weird relation to the word ‘unnatural’, not me.” Cory looked at his own two teammates with a smile, but only got uncommitted ones in return.

Tianyi started to talk before Felicia got the chance. “Is contraceptives a good kind of unnatural to you?”

Cory looked at her with a mildly impatient smile. “Your point being?”

“Well, if you were banging a nice chick and the condom broke, or your pills didn’t work, and she got pregnant – would you insist on keeping the child? No options considered?”

“And with ‘option’ you mean ‘abortion’ I take it?”

“Among other things.”

“Of course I would insist on keeping the child. If I’m fine with having sex I should be fine with having a child. That’s the main purpose of it, after all.” He said the last sentence with a meaning look at Felicia.

“What?!” Tianyi burst out in pretended astonishment. “My life is a lie…!”

Matsuko and Mourad chuckled at her, but Felicia didn’t share their amusement. “So you think Malenka was selfish and irresponsible to have that abortion?”

“I’m not going to discuss Malenka’s abortion when she’s not around, Lissy”, Cory said.

“Okay okay”, Tiany intervened eagerly, “how about this: A guy rapes me, and I get pregnant. Should I keep the child?”

Cory gave her a look. “You’re being very hypothetical now.”

“And you aren’t with all this talk about preservation of the human species and all? Answer the question.”

Tianyi’s tone had gotten sharper now too. Haylen glanced at Matsuko and Mourad, but they had their eyes mostly set on their work just like himself.

“Well”, Cory said and looked at her thoughtfully, “the child can’t help that you were raped. It’s a child no matter who’s the other parent.”

“But that other parent would never ever be a real parent, never help with the kid once it was born even if he got out of prison.”

“Not every parent lives to see their children being born either.” Cory shrugged.

“Yeah but this guy isn’t someone who planned to have a family, it’s someone who’s only after some quick fun and power play.”

“I heard you the first time you said ‘rape’, Tia, and I repeat: It’s still a child, even if it came to exist because of a rape.”

“We have laws though”, Felicia pointed out. “Legally…-”

“You don’t have to lecture me on abortion laws, Felicia”, Cory interrupted.

“Hang on, let me get this clear”, Tianyi said, “you do think that if someone rapes you, and you get pregnant, you should still keep the child.”

“If there’s no threat to your health, of course.”

“Alright.” Tianyi nodded and turned back to her work. She suddenly seemed weirdly indifferent.

Cory looked from Tianyi to Felicia, who also had picked up her chore.

“I honestly don’t understand what all the fuss here is about.”

“Really, Cory?” Felicia’s voice oozed of sarcasm as she looked up at him. “You can’t understand why someone would be offended if you called them selfish and irresponsible for doing what’s best for them and their lives?”

He gave her a somewhat teasing look. “Selfish – best for themselves. I rest my case.”

Felicia slammed her palm on the floor. “You know what I mean!”

“Maybe it’s hard to face the truth?” He shrugged. “Either way, I’m entitled my opinion.”

“And the rest of us aren’t? We’re not entitled to object when you’re spilling your sucky opinions around?”

“Of course you are, I just wish you could do so with less shouting and wild interpretation of what I’m saying.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to interpret ‘make more biological babies even if you’re gay or rape victim’ in any other way than exactly that?” Felicia stared at him. “Also, how the fuck is rapist genes helping humankind here!?” She was about to continue, but Tianyi stopped her.

“Scopes, leave it”, she said, very calmly. “He’s not worth your breath.”

Cory raised his eyebrows. “Wow. Now I’m offended. It’s one thing you don’t agree with me, Tia, you don’t have to attack my person.”

“Mourad?” Tianyi said. “If Cory ever uses the nickname ‘Tia’ when talking about me again, would you please tell him not to? It’s bad enough that his mouth gets to say my official name.”

“Very mature, Tia, very mature”, Cory said.

“You can tell him yourself Tia, oh my god…” Mourad said awkwardly despite the eyeroll.

Tianyi didn’t say anything more. Felicia got on her feet, gathered her stuff and left the docking bay. When she walked past Haylen she snarled: “Thanks for the help.”

He looked up at her, but it was too late to answer.

“Is this a womb thing?” Cory asked with a sigh. “Or a gay thing perhaps?”

“I think it’s a you-thing”, Matsuko answered calmly.

“How so, Matsuko?” Cory peered at her. “Do tell.”

She shook her head without looking up. “Because you like winding people up.”

“Do I now? I can’t really help if people get wound up by my opinions, can I?”

As Matsuko kept working in silence, Cory finally looked Haylen’s way. Haylen looked back, even if he knew he was going to regret it.

“What do you think, Haylen?”

“I get the whole society thing, don’t see the point of guilt trippin’ people for not goin’ all rabbit though.”

Cory frowned, but with that little smile still on his lips. “Guilt tripping? Is that what you think I’m doing?”

“Yeah.”

Cory shifted into a position leaning more forward and looked at Haylen, not unlike a hunter zooming in on its prey.

“In what way am I guilt tripping anyone? And, while we’re at it, for what exactly?”

Haylen looked at him silently for a few moments, but Cory waited.

“You didn’t listen to Felicia an’ Tianyi while you talked to’em?”

“Of course I did. I just didn’t hear any valid argument for their stand. I got to say, it’s rather interesting to see you all so strongly convinced I’m wrong yet you can’t explain why.”

“That you don’t understand don’t mean you be given bad arguments.”

“Trick questions and insinuations hardly count as arguments.”

For a moment Haylen was tempted to bring up the fact that he personally didn’t want to have kids at all. But he had to admit that he had stepped into the same trap as Felicia and Tianyi. Whether or not Cory liked to wind people out, he had succeeded in just that. To try and give him a serious explanation would be a waste of time and energy; Cory would be more keen on winning a word feud than actually making an effort to understand.

So instead of answering, Haylen put conditioner on a cloth and began to silently work it into the now brushed clean boot. Taking sides and defending his own had been natural as well as required in the Tyrian Tanks, but ‘sides’ had gone irrelevant when he signed up for Praesidia, and ‘his own’ had narrowed down to pretty much Ziva and himself.

With the inevitable blur of legal and moral lines that came with that kind of work for that kind of company, he had found that the least frustrating solution to situations like this was to simply shut the fuck up. If he tried to argue for himself or others, it usually only made things worse.

Still, standing idle had never felt right. That added extra bitterness to the fact that while his silence came out of resignation, Tianyi’s silence was an act of aggression.

Cory smiled, pleased with the outcome, no doubt. “If you’re out of arguments, maybe you can elaborate this rabbit thing instead?”

“Can we just drop this now?” asked Matsuko and looked at Cory tiredly.

“If you don’t like the subject, then sure”, Cory answered with exaggerated indifference.

After a couple of minutes Matsuko and Mourad started to talk about something less emotion stirring. Tianyi and Cory got involved too as if nothing happened, but Haylen noticed that Tianyi didn’t answer Cory directly even once.

Tianyi caught Haylen’s eyes to give him a brief smile, either as encouragement or a thanks for the support. He didn’t really think he deserved either.

No rest for the wicked

Someone was gently shaking his shoulder, and he slowly and reluctantly emerged from the sweet emptiness of sleep. The first sound he registered was the prio 1 mission alert, the soft ‘bim – bim – bim’ triggered the instincts to finish what he was doing and go get geared up, but there was no receiving end anywhere; his mind and his body seemed to have merged into a thick, grey pulp.

”Haylen?” At least he recognized Leon’s voice. ”Haylen, you awake?”

He rolled over halfway on his back, trying to blink his eyes open and focus. The pain in his head made him squint despite the dim light.

”You wit’ me, Haylen?”

He took a deep breath, trying to grasp reality and find his voice. ”…yeah.”

”We got a mission. I need to know if you be good to go or not. Can you sit up?”

Not until now memory caught up with him. The stress test. Migraine. Seizure. He was still in the med bay, where they had taken him earlier so he could sleep it all off. It could have been minutes ago, it could have been days. He hated this. Hated hated hated to wake up disoriented, without clear memories, no connection, hated it…

The mission alert signal finally hit a target in his brain, and his body responded. He pushed himself up into sitting, putting his feet down on the floor, inhaling deeply and pulling his shoulders up as his forehead began to pound.

”Haylen?” Leon’s hands were on his shoulders.

”…yeah?”

“Name, rank, number.”

He recited the lot of it. At least all that came to his tongue without much delay.

”We got a mission”, Leon said again, giving him a water bottle and told him to drink before he continued. ”Alpha Dawn group attacked anot’er research station, prio 1 mission. De UGS Terra sent deir teams dere already, but dey can’ handle it alone. You able to get ready an’ move out in a bit?”

Haylen took a few breaths, closing his mouth firmly to keep the water down. He felt nauseous, shaky, but he could tell that the headache was at least on the going-away-side and not the kill-you-soon-side.

”Yeah, I am…” He put the bottle away and rubbed his forehead. It was easier to talk if he kept his eyes closed. “Section E caused de seizure?”

“Don’ know yet, but it sure dragged more sand in. You won’ be usin’ dem on dis mission dough. Need more painkillers?”

“What’s de time?”

”2:14, you had last dose about seven hours ago, been sleepin’ since. You feelin’ sick?”

“Mm.”

“A’ight, drink more if you can, den go gear up. We be gettin’ food on de go, an’ two hours idlin’ on de shuttle.”

“Got it.”

The others were almost set and ready when Haylen entered the changing room. Felicia was adjusting her chestpiece, talking to Xander.

“You look as fresh as a fucking rosebud, what’s your secret? You got sleep enhancing implants?” She, as well as most of the others, was puffy-eyed and raspy due to being rallied after too few hours of sleep. Xander wasn’t.

The TR scratched his neck, cheeks turning slightly redder. “I never went to sleep tonight. There was a bug in the engine software I had to deal with, and when I had solved that the alarm went off.”

“Hope that door doesn’t hit you in the back during the mission then”, said Cory.

Felicia turned to Haylen as he opened his locker and asked him how he was feeling, and that was where he had to turn on his heel and get to the toilet to throw up.

“Please don’t say you’re pregnant too”, Keith said as he went back to his locker. Never too tired to joke, was he.

Felicia didn’t ask more, thankfully. However, Cory did.

“I heard the stress test didn’t go so well. Should you really go on a mission right now? You look terrible.”

“Not your call, eh…” Haylen mumbled without looking at him, trying to the legplates in place.

“I was asking out of concern, but okay.” Haylen didn’t need to see him to know his eyebrows were raised in defense.

But before he came up with an answer, Cory left the changing room. Haylen leaned his head against the cool surface of the cabinet door, wishing he could stay there forever. Morgan briefly put a hand on his shoulder, giving it an encouraging rub as he walked past.

Felicia closed her locker as Haylen got a grip of himself again and continued with the armor pieces. “Hate to say it, but he got a point. Are you sure you’re good to go?”

He lifted his chin up, then looked at her.

She held up her hands. “Okay, okay.” She grabbed her helmet and weapon, waiting for him to get finished before they went to the shuttle hall.

– – –

The research station was located on a relatively safe area on UR22, a 1.2 G moon without atmosphere and with active cryovolcanoes. The two Terra teams had suffered casualties and was on their last air reserves, and still they hadn’t been able to breach the enemy defense line. Apparently, the Alpha Dawn group had brought more robotic toys. Not the troopers this time, but the smaller MG:s, Mechanical Guards. Less firepower, less sturdy, but hard to take out in a cramped area where you couldn’t use grenades.

Or when you couldn’t use the Tyrian Tank, Haylen thought as he forced down the last of the nutritional smoothie he had sipped on during the trip. Fortunately he’d been able to keep it all down. Another painkiller and forty five minutes of sleep, and he was almost back to normal. But there was the lingering shakiness and sensitivity to sounds, his reactions were slower, and he had orders not to use anything more than normal barriers.

It could’ve been worse, of course. Much worse. Still, it would’ve been neat not to have Cory’s silent doubt as a fucking flashlight in his face every time their eyes happened to meet. It was enough with his own. Even captain Avril hadn’t commented his general status this time, who was Cory to have opinions? Then again, Leon told him that there had been enough scolding from both the captain and the commander last night, when Haylen was blissfully asleep, to last for the whole mission.

As the team had gradually shook the sleep daze off during the transport, Xander was instead starting to yawn. Leon tossed him a few stim packs to wake up his brain later when it was time to hack MG:s.

They entered atmosphere and it was time to get ready.

“The plan is to join the Terra teams at the rendezvous points” captain Avril informed them. “They need to exchange air tanks so we’ll replace them for a while. Xander will continue their attempts to shut down the MG:s before we move in. If that fails, we’ll have to shoot our way through. There is air inside the station and so far the airlock is working. As per usual, you are not to remove your breather pieces until you get permission.”

“Time to show the Terrables how to deal with Alphas”, Keith grinned.

Haylen didn’t feel like smiling. Enter Task Force Ignis, eh, with its crippled prim duty team. Short of one soldier and half a frontliner, and the remaining half of said frontliner wasn’t even allowed to use his amp force properly… Haylen sighed and put his helmet on, clicking the breather piece in place.

It took Xander a good while to break into the system that controlled the MG:s, even with the progress made by the Terra TR:s. Meanwhile, the Ignis team held the claimed positions until the Terra team got back with fresh air tubes. The air inside the station was still good, but the officers were taking no risks. The Alpha Dawn might’ve been be a young organisation, but they had also shown that they could be reckless and, well. Rather dramatic. There was a risk they’d rather vent the station and die with their enemy than surrender.

This unit seemed to be a great deal more experienced and skilled one than the previous ones the Ignis teams had encountered. When the MG:s eventually were shut down, the teams were met with heavy gunfire as they advanced into the station. An intense fight followed, from which Paavo had to pull out of after taking a rather serious hit in the leg. Tianyi and Rashida were hit badly too, but since none of them got bleeding wounds they had to carry on.

It wasn’t until the remainders of the two Terra teams returned that they could finally turn the tides. At last, there was a desperate request for cease-fire from the Alpha Dawns, and one by one they left their weapons on the ground and crawled out of hiding with their hands in the air. Five of them were dead, another twenty one wounded, leaving only three of them physically unharmed. Those three were hiding in the station’s communication central, three scared witless teenagers who had been seduced by the rebel spirit only to realize that they weren’t prepared to die for this obscure cause at all.

“It’s just sad”, Felicia pondered as they were waiting for more reinforcements to take care of the Alpha Dawn-prisoners and the station crew. “Union research is already common property, their whole agenda is nothing but sheep shit.”

She kept her voice low, glancing at the prisoners in the room. They had been placed in the station canteen and in a conference room, guarded by the Ignis and the Terra team respectively. Leon and Nyree had patched their own soldiers up first, and were now taking care of the prisoners.

“They claim the Union is keeping information from us though”, Cory pointed out. “Which isn’t untrue, there’s a whole lot of things the public never gets to know.”

“Yes, I know, but that’s just common classified stuff. Some information need to be handled with care, right? But they always sound like people don’t get to know even the most basic stuff, like what minerals can be mined from what asteroid, and things like that.”

“What I don’t understand”, Morgan said, “is that if they are connected to the Federation, which they seem to be considering the jammers on that drone we encountered, why is free information so important to them? The Federation usually praises company secrets and the freedom of protecting and selling anything you possess.”

“Hey”, said Keith with a nod in the prisoners’ direction, and they all stopped talking since it was obvious the two closest ones tried to listen in.

Haylen felt a headache build up, and took a dose of the migraine meds just in case it wasn’t an ordinary one. Then he looked at Xander who was leaning at the wall next to him, eyes staring at absolutely nothing.

“Tired, Dots?”

Xander blinked and looked at him, forcing his eyes to stay open. “I’m sorry, what did you say? I think I was asleep.”

Haylen only smirked, shaking his head. “Sit down before you drop, private.”

The TR blinked again, then nodded slowly. “That’s a good idea. Very good idea.” Xander sank down on the floor and fell asleep in less than a minute.

And, in less than three minutes, reinforcements arrived, and it was time for the Ignis teams to leave. Haylen actually felt sorry for Xander as he had to wake him up again.